The bulk tobacco ban of 2013, reminds of the ban imposed in Greece 130 years ago as the country’s financial crimes squad SDOE is again trying to crack down on the elusive crime of tobacco smuggling, which has a long history in the country.
Tobacco differs from other products, such as potatoes or tomatoes, which are placed on the market outside the circuit of intermediaries, because its use requires special processing and preparation, as well as because it is a product subject to special taxation, which has given it a different place in the Greek society.
The prosecution of illegal smokers has its own episodic and sometimes, tragicomic history. On April 27, 1883, the Charilaos Trikoupis’ government, in a desperate search for revenue, imposed a tax on tobacco for the first time and abolished its sale in bulk.
Tobacconists hung black flags on their stores and urged his defeat in the next elections. Tobacco smuggling started with rolling papers because at that time, there was no black market of rolling papers, equivalent to that of tobacco.
Greek smokers were using letter papers and newspapers, rolling and smoking everything and in every way they could, as the disposal of cigarette papers had already become a state-monopoly. The strict tutelage of smoking products lasted until the end of 1985, while in some difficult periods of the Greek history, a rolled cigarette gave away a person’s political leaning.
In 1927, tobacco producers were especially privileged with the right to use – for personal use only – a special pink-colored rolling paper. But police were raiding cafes and remote villages searching for perpetrators of smuggling or illegal smokers. The first years of the prosecution the police were paid a bonus of 25 drachmas for every illegal smoker they arrested. Some smokers of smuggled tobacco were eating the guilty pink papers in order to avoid the arrest by the persistent policemen, who were even making body searches.
And although the modern bulk tobacco smuggling prefers to use airtight plastic bags, the modern pursuers, instead of their pockets, are able to detect unusual movements in their bank accounts.
Bulk tobacco prices in the black market range from 20 to 40 euros per kilo. But even with the price of 15 euros for just 200 grams, the comparison with the legal product shows the advantage of the smuggled tobacco dealer: a standard package of legal trade includes 18-20 grams of tobacco and is placed in the market in the minimum price of 4 euros, i. e, a more than double price in comparison to the bulk product, which remains attractive to a public who is urgently looking for cheap rolling tobacco.
According to SDOE estimates, the black market of bulk tobacco possibly includes many individual amateur traders of short range and not organized smuggling rings. Nevertheless, agents are planning to check bank accounts in order to prevent the spread of the phenomenon.
The tobacco companies, who are trading both ready-made cigarettes and rolling papers, are concerned too. Nikitas Theofilopoulos, Chief Executive Officer of Papastratos, the company which undertook the initiative for the campaign against the smuggled bulk tobacco, said: “The citizens should become aware. They should understand that those who sell illegal cigarettes and bulk tobacco are members of criminal organizations, who are making huge profits and deprive jobs from an industry that employs 500.000 workers and contributes about 7% of the country’s revenue”.
May Samourka, Communications Manager at Japan Tobacco International, points out that, “The changes on taxation led to an increase of 1 euro for a package of 20 grams of tobacco; while we should mention that the consumer of rolling tobacco is also incurred with the cost of at least 0.50 euros for filters and rolling papers.”
He said that, according to the company’s estimations, consumption has fallen 11.4 percent for cigarettes and 12.8 percent on tobacco. In parallel, the illegal cigarette market is blooming as, according to measurements, in December 2012 it had already reached 17 percent of the market. Samourka said, “The exorbitant increase in tobacco prices, which is a result of its excessive taxation, is the main cause of the spread of the bulk tobacco trade”.