Illicit tobacco trade: Nearly 370 million cigarettes seized in 2020

International operations involving the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) led to the seizure of nearly 370 million illegal cigarettes in 2020. The majority of the cigarettes were smuggled from countries outside the EU but destined for sale on EU markets. Had they reached the market, OLAF estimates that these black market cigarettes would have caused losses of around €74 million in customs and excise duties and VAT to EU and member state budgets.

 OLAF supported national and international customs and law enforcement agencies from across the world in 20 operations during 2020, in particular providing vital information on the identification and tracking of lorries and/or containers loaded with cigarettes misdeclared as other goods at the EU borders. OLAF exchanges intelligence and information in real time with EU member states and third countries, and if there is clear evidence that the shipments are destined for the EU contraband market, national authorities are ready and able to step in and stop them.

OLAF Director-General Ville Itälä said: “2020 was a challenging year in so many ways.  While many legitimate businesses were forced to slow or halt production, the counterfeiters and smugglers continued unabated. I am proud to say that OLAF’s investigators and analysts played a vital role in helping to track and seize these illegal tobacco shipments, and that OLAF’s cooperation with authorities across the globe has remained strong despite the challenging conditions. Our joint efforts have not only helped save millions of euros in lost revenues and kept millions of contraband cigarettes of the market, they have also helped us get closer to the ultimate goal of identifying and closing down the criminal gangs behind this dangerous and illegal trade.”

A total of 368,034,640 cigarettes destined for illegal sale in the EU were seized in operations involving OLAF during 2020; of these 132,500,000 cigarettes were seized in non-EU countries (primarily Albania, Kosovo, Malaysia and Ukraine) while 235,534,640 cigarettes were seized in EU member states.

OLAF has also identified clear patterns with regard to the origins of this illicit tobacco trade: of the cigarettes seized in 2020, some 163,072,740 originated in the Far East (China, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia), while 99,250,000 were from the Balkans/Eastern Europe (Montenegro, Belarus, Ukraine). A further 84,711,900 originated in Turkey, while 21,000,000 came from the UAE.

The main cigarette smuggling operations reported by OLAF in 2020 involved collaborations with authorities in Malaysia and Belgium, Italy and Ukraine, as well as a number involving authorities from across the EU and elsewhere.

OLAF mission, mandate and competences

OLAF’s mission is to detect, investigate and stop fraud with EU funds.

OLAF fulfils its mission by:

  • Carrying out independent investigations into fraud and corruption involving EU funds, so as to ensure that all EU taxpayers’ money reaches projects that can create jobs and growth in Europe;
  • contributing to strengthening citizens’ trust in the EU Institutions by investigating serious misconduct by EU staff and members of the EU Institutions, and;
  • developing a sound EU anti-fraud policy.

In its independent investigative function, OLAF can investigate matters relating to fraud, corruption and other offences affecting the EU financial interests concerning:

  • All EU expenditure: the main spending categories are Structural Funds, agricultural policy and rural
  • development funds, direct expenditure and external aid;
  • some areas of EU revenue, mainly customs duties, and;
  • suspicions of serious misconduct by EU staff and members of the EU institutions.

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