Here I am, standing in the backroom of a corner store, amazed by what I just discovered. In front of me stands a huge cube of meticulously stacked juice boxes. The shopkeep begins removing the juice boxes one by one starting at the top. He steps aside, revealing a core made up of dozens of cartons of cigarettes, with Polish, English and cyrillic text. He quickly adds, “each of them is 4 euros” – reffering to packs – “choose, and put them in your pocket now, I’ll charge you later.”
At first, my hunt for black market cigarettes with my colleague was not proving fruitful.
“We don’t do that here,” said the cashier in the first Polish store I had visited in the Hague. “But surely, you’ll find what you’re looking for elsewhere,” she added with a smirk. This was the initial response I got when trying to buy cheap, Polish cigarettes.
According to Algemeen Dagblad, the Dutch police reported that the sale of cheap alcohol, cigarettes without excise and medical products such as antibiotics have become a common practice in several Polish shops, especially in the Hague – which count over 100.
After a series of similarly dubious interactions, my colleague and I stumbled across a corner shop selling Polish products. Curiously, it didn’t appear on Google maps. At first sight, it looks just as similar as other Polish shops: a wide range of savoury snacks, typical sweet treats, pastries and the ever-present pierogi. I give it a chance, and greet the man behind the counter, who appears to be from a Middle-Eastern origin. Besides the two of us, the shop is empty. As done for the previous shops, I asked him for a pack of Polish cigarettes, and as with the other stores, he first directed me to the legal cigarettes, which were prominently displayed behind the counter. These packs feature a Dutch excise stamp, and Dutch text. So I try again: “no, you know what I mean,” I say with an inviting smile, “I meant, cigarettes… from Poland…” Eventually, he smiles back and just quickly adds: “alright, come back in one hour”. From then on, I knew there was something to the ‘under the counter’ cigarettes story.
The Netherlands boasts some of the most expensive cigarettes in the EU. A number of laws and agreements to be implemented over the next couple of decades indicate that restrictions on legal cigarettes will increase. In 2024, for instance, The Netherlands plans to ban the sale of cigarettes from supermarkets. Additionally, the 2018 National Prevention Agreement has outlined plans to increase the price of cigarettes consistently in an attempt to decrease the smoking population of the Netherlands from roughly 20% to >5%. So far, the agreement, and the introduction of the so-called ‘Smoke-Free Generation’ movement, has seen a drop of about 1 percent. Poland, on the other hand, has the second lowest retail price per cigarette pack in the EU. Faced with rising prices and restrictions, smokers may turn to black market alternatives.
When I returned to the store, two more men had arrived. The oldest man asked me whether I am looking for a “sztanga” or “paczki”, despite not being Polish himself, which translates to “cartons or packs.” After I reply that I am looking for individual packs, the youngest asks me to come with him to the backroom, where all sorts of big boxes, packages and orange juice boxes are stored. I choose 3 packs from among the hidden cartons, and pocket them. We return to the front, and the men seem content. “Cigarettes anytime, anytime!,” they laugh. The oldest man at the counter asks me if I can pay in cash. He explains that he would have to scan other products equivalent to 12 euros otherwise. As I’m paying, I grip the packs tightly in my pocket. We still have a small talk, complaining about cigarette prices in the Netherlands. They tell me that they are from Iran and Kurdistan, and make their living from selling Polish products.
Original or Counterfeit Cigarettes ?
No excise certification stamp, slightly different fonts, less precise paper cuts, atypical chemical smell, looser tobacco, and a slightly damp blend: the cigarettes we bought are clearly fake and suggest they have been made by hand, perhaps in an underground factory. The cashier even proudly affirmed the cigarettes were made in Poland, despite the “made in Switzerland” inscription, figuring on every pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Whether original or counterfeit, those illegally imported cigarettes take different routes into the country.
Finding Cigarettes Online
One might expect that purchasing illegal cigarettes online would require access to the dark web. Connections to the tobacco underworld can be easily found however. On Facebook, for instance, certain profiles openly advertise cigarette sales complete with pictures of the merchandise. One such Facebook profile, which is particularly active, regularly announces available cigarette brands, delivery dates, cities and even ‘off-times’ without deliveries due to ‘holidays’. The activity on the social platform suggests that the individual behind the profile runs cigarettes full-time. Such pages seem to interact with individual people delivering smaller cigarette orders. But not all smugglers focus on supplying for personal use.
A Larger Scale
Based on the number of cigarette cartons I saw in the shop, I assumed they were imported on a large scale. Finding a source of cigarettes intended for mass resale requires connections beyond individuals on Facebook.
Ogłaszamy24.pl is a Polish announcement portal, based in Tbilisi, Georgia. The website was initially created in 2011 for small advertisements, and the sale of second hand objects. Nevertheless the portal quickly got out of control, as it started serving as a platform to sell illegal products and criminal services, ranging from illegal cigarettes, drugs, fake documents, exotic animals as well as ordered account hacking, beating or theft. Illegal cigarette sales on a large scale are thriving. The five pictured below are only a sample of the thousands on the site.
In fact, Ukrainian, Belarusian but also homemade cigarettes are offered on the portal. Most of those are destined to large sales and wholesales, with a minimum purchase, which greatly exceeds personal consumption amounts. Strikingly, a number of advertisements mention “pizza boxes”, which refers to rectangular cardboard boxes stuffed with thousands of individual homemade cigarettes.
An advertisement, originally written in Polish, struck our attention as it primarily addressed re-sellers – including shops wishing to engage in illegal cigarette sales:
The advertisement provided an email address, to which we wrote, attempting to place an order. We asked for a total of 14 cartons of cigarettes, from Polish but also Belarusian origin, to be delivered to the Netherlands. For citizens of the EU, you are only allowed to enter the Netherlands with a maximum of 800 cigarettes. Those 14 cartons would surpass that count by 2000 cigarettes. However, considering the usual advertised amounts on the website, this order was small compared to the orders typically made. Some advertisements even set a minimum order of one ‘pizza box’ – in other words 4150 cigarettes.
A few interesting elements were retrieved from our email exchanges. The seller – who remained anonymous – informed us that the total costs would be 1150zł, which equates to 244 euros. With this order, the price per pack of cigarettes is 1.74 euros, which is far less than Dutch market prices, where a pack costs 8.50 euros. The seller also told us that it is possible to negotiate a lower price with a larger order, or forgo the delivery costs if we pick up the cigarettes in Przemyśl, a small Polish city near the Ukrainian border. The city is located near Medyka, the main border through which Ukrainian refugees have been entering the European Union and through which most humanitarian aid is provided. With this in mind, the cigarette smuggling route becomes clearer – and gives an indication about how shops, like the one I visited, are supplied.
Action of Authorities
The Netherlands’ first line of defense against the smuggling of tobacco into the country is Douane, the Customs office. Marije Kuiper, a press officer for Douane, provided the Groningen Observer with a December 2022 report that analyzes the financial impact tobacco smuggling has on The Netherlands. “The proceeds from tobacco excise duty in recent years have been between €2.7 billion and €2.9 billion. Based on these numbers, it is a rough estimate that € 50 million per year has been lost in recent years due to illegal tobacco production and tobacco smuggling.” Their officers have regularly uncovered smugglers entering the country with amounts that far exceed legal limits. In April 2021, Customs officials uncovered 9.9 million cigarettes near Utrecht utilizing specially trained ‘tobacco dogs.’ More recently, on February 17 2023, Customs officials apprehended a 49 year old man from Poland in Rotterdam with 6.6 million illegal cigarettes in his truck.
OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, coordinates with law enforcement from member states and beyond in order to combat organized tobacco smuggling. “OLAF is obliged to protect the confidentiality of investigative and operational activities, as well as of any possible follow-up. We are therefore not in a position to provide a breakdown by Member State or to comment on investigations,” stated Therese Zhara, Strategic Communication Coordinator for OLAF. In 2020, nearly 370 million were seized during operations involving OLAF, which, had they made it to market, would have cost the EU nearly 74 million in lost customs and excise duties. The following year, they seized even more, over 430 million. What remains unknown, is how many cigarettes have made it into the EU, despite the actions of law enforcement agencies.
Europol has already taken action against organized tobacco smugglers. In April 2021, 30 were arrested in both the Netherlands and Poland in connection to a large-scale organized crime ring that was supplying millions of counterfeit cigarettes to Europe. As a result, 2 underground factories in the Netherlands employing Polish and Ukrainian workers and having a production capacity of 1 million cigarettes per day have been dismantled. The leaders of the crime ring based in Poland were arrested and production machinery, tools and arms have been seized by Europol. Underground tobacco factories can also be found within the Netherlands. In October 2021, an illicit cigarette factory was raided and shut down by a cooperative force of police and tax ministry inspectors in Gelderland, hidden within an old farmhouse. The workers from the factory were of Eastern European nationality.
Impact on Legal Cigarettes Sales
Black market cigarettes have important consequences on the Dutch economy, and beyond. However, regarding legal sales not all corner shop owners perceive the consequences of black market cigarettes. “I sell over 400 cigarette packs a day” says the owner of a night shop in Groningen.
“Surely, there might be some sketchy bars selling individual cigarettes or illegal cigarettes, but this does not affect my sales I believe”, the night shop owner continues. Similarly, the owner of Roken.nl tobacco shop did not notice the effects of black market cigarettes on his sales, and believes that their effects are “minimal”.
The night shop owner later mentioned that shops get checked regularly by the government. He explained that each carton of legit cigarettes has a QR code that indicates they are only meant to be sold at his shop. He claimed that not even a month back, representatives of the government came by and scanned each individual pack and carton in his store.
Law enforcement officials have been able to consistently catch and convict smugglers, as well as find and dismantle underground cigarette factories. However, the ease of accessibility to black market cigarettes, both from stores and online, indicates the problem is far from solved.