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Part 3: Illicit Cigarettes Ignite Trouble!

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Illicit cigarettes ignite trouble…. contributing to the scourge of illegal firearms, human trafficking, money laundering and annually robbing our country of more than TT$ 30M in revenue. While the health risks of cigarette use are well known and legally affixed to packets, the health problem is further compounded when the product is made in unsanitary conditions and contain unauthorized substances.

Cigarettes are among the most common illicitly traded products in the world. This is because it is relatively easy to produce, the profit margins are high and both detection rates and resulting penalties are considerably low. Cigarettes become illicit if they are:

  1. Counterfeited, bearing the trademark of a legitimate producer but being manufactured and distributed through unauthorized factories and channels. Additionally, the packaging and labeling requirements are ignored.
  2. Legitimately manufactured but are then smuggled into other jurisdictions with lower taxes.

In addition to legitimate manufacturers, other diverse international organizations are fighting the illicit cigarette trade. The World Health Organization (WHO) for example notes that the cheaper price of illicit cigarettes makes it more affordable for underage persons to begin smoking. In its Regional Office for The Eastern Mediterranean report it noted

“The illicit trade of tobacco products increases tobacco use among youth and other age groups.”

The WHO also said that eliminating the illicit cigarette trade could give governments an additional US$31B in revenue and prevent thousands of untimely deaths. This is not surprising since the illicit producers fail to comply with the standards insisted upon by health authorities.

With billions of cigarettes being produced annually, the profits made from its illicit trade are huge. It is estimated that one full container of illicitly traded cigarettes can yield approximately US$ 1M in profits. Consequently, criminal networks are using the illicit trade to fund their transnational illegal activities.

Crime Stoppers Trinidad and Tobago is a member of the Caribbean, Bermuda and Latin America (CBLA) region of Crime Stoppers International (CSI). Since 2015, as part of CSI’s global campaign against counterfeits, CBLA has highlighted the prevalence of illicit tobacco in our region. Actually, in 2016 a unit of the El Salvador police with anonymous tips from their Crime Stoppers programme, seized 40,000 boxes of contraband cigarettes next to the Guatemalan border. These cigarettes belonged to a crime organization with links to the Sinaloa Drug Cartel of Mexico. This criminal enterprise was known to have connections to gangs in both El Salvador and Guatemala. Of concern to T&T is the fact that these cigarettes originated in China travelling through that country, Panama and Belize, routes that are a regular part of our legitimate trading networks.

Additionally, the links between illicit tobacco and terrorism were noted in a Congressional Research Service Report by Rollins and Wyler in 2013. It noted

“The production, smuggling, and sale of tobacco products, including genuine and counterfeit cigarettes, is a lucrative form of financing for organized crime as well as terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, Hamas ….“.

As a trader you may knowingly sell illicit cigarettes. Similarly, as a consumer you may knowingly purchase cigarettes you suspect may be illicit. However if we know the profits from such purchases fund the killing of innocent persons by terrorists or allow a trafficked child to be involved in cigarette production will your action be the same ?

Crime Stoppers is therefore encouraging our businesspeople to be vigilant when purchasing cigarettes for resale. Similarly, we encourage you the consumer to be careful with purchasing items you believe may be illicit goods.

Finally, remember that suspicions of illicit and counterfeited cigarettes can be reported anonymously and safely to Crime Stoppers at 800-TIPS or through the Submit Tip Now banner on our website.

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