Illicit tobacco trade is a huge business and a huge problem. In addition to significant amounts of lost revenue in taxes and state income (official statements put lost revenues from illicit cigarette trade in Europe at over €10B annually), this illicit trade has enormous impact on the economic and social fabric of society. It obstructs economic development, and makes a product that is harmful to begin with even more harmful, as illicit tobacco products are outside the regulatory framework for strict health warnings, maximum tar/nicotine levels, and sales prohibition to minors. If that's not enough, counterfeit tobacco has also been found to contain arsenic, rat droppings and far more tar and carbon monoxide and legal products.
Since we didn't want to rely on other sources of information, we set out to investigate this issue firsthand to see if things are really as bad as people say. We came back with a startling answer - as bleak as the picture looks from the news and research, it's nothing compared to what's going on in reality. Over a period of several weeks we operated in 5 Western European countries, we managed to effortlessly purchase a variety of illicit products from over 30 brands, ranging from market leaders such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike to brands you've probably never heard of (and judging by the cigarette taste and composition, probably never want to hear of for that matter). In every country we visited, we managed to find people selling illicit cigarettes without any effort. We deliberately came with no research or prior knowledge - just asked locals where we could purchase cheap cigarettes and managed to find sellers in no time.
We set out to test the packs and cartons we bought. Careful examination of the packs and products and use of close friends as guinea pigs revealed that the cigarettes we bought ranged from genuine cigarettes (though illegally smuggled and sold) to counterfeit and low quality smokes. Six of the branded products we purchased, including one pack of Marlboro, were thrown away after a few puffs and labeled "unsmokeable" by our test subjects (who may be ex-friends judging by their reaction to some of the products we gave them to try).
During the course of our investigation into the subject, we also came to learn more about the regulations and measures in place to stop this illicit trade. Measures that so far appear to be riddled with holes and inefficiencies to say the least. The cigarettes we bought included some tracking or tax stickers on the pack, even the ones that were clearly low quality forgeries. One particular method that caught our attention was the use of a system by the name of Codentify - a measure put in place by the tobacco companies themselves to track and trace the product, ensure authenticity and verify that taxes and tariffs are properly paid. This Codentify system puts a unique, random 12 digit code on each pack that the manufacturers claim is foolproof. Some of the clearly counterfeit cigarettes we purchased contained these codes, and when we verified them with the manufacturer it turned out that 4 came back as forgeries and 3 were registered as genuine with the manufacture. Regardless of forged or genuine, this code clearly did not fulfill its task of preventing these cigarettes from being sold illegally.
Even more shocking to us was the ease of purchasing products online. We solicited the help of a cyber expert to navigate the Dark Web, and quickly found ourselves in a site selling "any kind of cigarette or tobacco product you want" and "delivered anywhere in the world" (these are actual quotes made by the people we talked to online). Here we are not talking about buying a few packs or cartons - these people are selling every tobacco product imaginable by the truckload - full containers of genuine and counterfeit cigarettes - all at our fingertip. Stay tuned for more shocking news on this very soon.