Illicit Trade

*All figures taken from Revenue Tobacco Surveys 2010-19

What is illicit trade?

All legitimate tobacco products sold on the Irish market must display a relevant duty paid Irish tax stamp. Product being sold or supplied in Ireland that does not display this stamp is classed as illicit product.

There are three categories in which illicit tobacco products fall under:

  1. Contraband – Genuine brands smuggled from one low tax/excise country to a higher tax country. Often seen as Duty Free product which is smuggled into Ireland and sold illegally
  2. Counterfeit – Product illegally produced and made to replicate genuine product
  3. Illicit Whites – Cigarettes commonly produced legitimately for export by small tobacco manufacturers throughout the world but illegally smuggled into Ireland. The majority of products found in Ireland has originated from countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and the UAE.

Current situation

Itmac Total Market Overview – Total Consumption

  • Revenue’s Illegal Tobacco Products Research Survey 2019 found that approximately 484 million illegal cigarettes (24 million packs) were consumed in Ireland in 2019, representing a loss to the Exchequer of approximately €242 million. Nearly 1 in 4 adult smokers in Ireland do not purchase cigarettes from any Irish shop.
  • This accounts for approximately 24% of the market of which Revenue estimates that 15% is illicit while the remaining 9% is purchased abroad – a 2% rise from the 2018 figures.
  • Regulation passed by the Government saw the introduction of a minimum pack size of RYO tobacco of 30g which will cost an average of €15. Excise on RYO/MYO in Ireland is already very high vs. cigarettes, significantly exceeding the 2/3 ratio RYO vs. cigarettes recommended by EU Directive 2011/64/EU (€60/Kg vs €90/1000 cigarettes).
  • Any additional increase in excise will likely fuel illegal RYO consumption.

Sourcing and smuggling illegal tobacco products

Smugglers source and smuggle illegal product in several different ways. These include:

  • Smuggling large consignments of cigarettes in containers or within genuine cargo from the Far and Middle East
  • Van and car drivers transporting illicit product on board passenger ferries from Europe
  • Illegal product being posted to Ireland
  • Ant smugglers bring back product in suitcases from cheaper countries such as he Canaries and Baltic States
  • Returning holiday makers arriving back with excess amounts of product to sell
  • These smuggled products can be counterfeit, contraband or Illicit whites depending on where the smugglers source them
  • An illegal tobacco factory capable of producing cigarettes worth €25 million was found in Dundalk in May 2019

The first six months of 2020 saw a significant rise in illegal cigarette seizures:

  • 9 million cigarettes seized at Dublin Port valued at over €4.4 million (5 May 2020)
  • 8.4 million cigarettes seized at Dublin Port valued at €4.1 million (6 May 2020)
  • 2½ tonnes of raw tobacco worth €2.7 million seized by the Joint Agency Task Force (31 May 2020)
  • Tobacco worth €3.8m seized by Revenue at Dublin Port (9 June 2020)

Illegal sales in Ireland

  • Illegal tobacco products still sold in traditional ways including Street markets.
  • Word of mouth, e.g. contacts made in smoking areas of certain pubs, bookmakers etc.
  • Via the internet, particularly through ads placed on Social Media e.g. Facebook accounts. This route to market is of growing concern to the industry due to the easy access to a large, targeted audience and the total lack of regulation when it comes to the age profile of potential purchasers.

What drives the illicit tobacco trade?

The illicit trade is driven primarily by price and the significant profits that criminal groups and individuals involved in the trade can make from smuggling and selling illicit tobacco products. As they pay no excise or tax on the smuggled product, they have a big margin to work within. That facilitates the growth of criminality in communities and allows criminal gangs to flourish and prosper. Furthermore, the people involved in the smuggling, distribution and sale of illicit tobacco products have no qualms about selling to and indeed, often using children to sell their product on the streets. The illicit tobacco trade offers consumers a value for money option compared to the high prices of legitimate tobacco in Ireland and the people involved continue to seek out new ways of supplying its target audience.

Over the last number of years, the Irish Government has taken the approach of significantly increasing excise duty on tobacco products. This has seen duties increase by 90% since 2003 and today sees a legitimate pack of 20 cigarettes retailing at €12 with similar illicit packs being sold for as little as €5. This price difference between legally sold and illegal tobacco products remains the single biggest contributory factor.

Impact of illicit trade

The citizens of Ireland and taxpayers are ultimately the biggest losers because of the illicit trade. Figures released from Revenue for 2019 show the illegal trade at 15% this equates to an excise loss of €242m to the exchequer. With the government not collecting these monies, it allows general taxes to remain at a high level to make up the shortfall and local and national services throughout the country suffer.

Other significant losers from this trade are the genuine retailers, who because of illegal selling in their community no longer see genuine customers visiting their store. A typical retailer reports tobacco sales to be an average of 20% of their overall turnover.

Who is the ultimate winner?

Organized Crime Groups and individuals involved in the illegal trade are big winners. The people at the top of the chain make the most profit but everyone involved to the street or end seller take a little profit from it. It is believed that the major organized crime groups use the vast profits to fund further criminal activities such as drugs and gun smuggling. In the first few months of 2020 alone, discoveries at Dublin Port led to the seizure of illegal cigarettes worth €8 million.

If that container had not been detained and all product had been sold on our streets it would have resulted in a windfall for criminal gangs.

Tackling the illicit market

In 2019 Revenue seized 3,215 cigarettes and 1,445 other tobacco products, at a total value of €10.52 million. Significantly, this is a 75% drop in the seizure of tobacco products since the same period in 2018 (the total value was €41.29 million).

Smugglers are continuously adapting their methods and making it increasingly difficult for the Customs or Gardai to identify illegal consignment or routes and to conduct seizures. The authorities primarily charged with tackling cigarette smuggling are under resourced and subsequently are unable to develop intelligence or conduct enforcement action that would reduce the illicit trade or at least make it more difficult for the people involved.

The government needs to realize its excise strategy is not working. Year on year it fails to bring in the projected funds from excise duties, creating a lucrative market for criminals to thrive and failing hard working retailers from earning an honest living. We believe law enforcement agencies do have the necessary legislation to tackle these individuals however current laws, such as seizing cars and vans that have been used to transport illegal product, need to be enforced.