Poland and Belarus Dismantle Transnational Tobacco Smuggling Network

Polish and Belarusian authorities detained over a dozen suspects believed to be part of a large-scale tobacco smuggling network operating between the two countries and potentially throughout the European continent.

Europol Poland TobacccoPolish and Belarusian authorities uncovered a large-scale, transnational tobacco smuggling operation. (Photo: Europol, License)The suspects were already under investigation for drug trafficking in the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom, Europol reported Monday.

In addition to uncovering evidence behind the traffickers’ cryptocurrency money laundering operation, police also managed to seize silver and gold bullion, luxury vehicles, and considerable amounts of cash in various currencies. Altogether, the total value of the seizures made amounted to roughly two million euros (US$2.1 million).

Nearly 200 law enforcement officers from Poland alone were on-site to carry out the arrests and seizures.

Information provided by the criminal intelligence agency uncovered that the conspirators’ tobacco smuggling ring existed to finance other aspects of their overall operation. Europol did not hint at what other illicit activities the group is suspected of being involved in, apart from drug trafficking.

The traffickers predominantly used property investments and cryptocurrencies to launder their ill-gotten gains, Europol said.

The illicit tobacco trade is a principal contributor to excise fraud in the EU. It deprives member states of valuable tax revenue that would otherwise fund public services such as education, health care, and property development.

As with the case here, it also serves to finance other organized crime activities that pose a greater risk to public safety and national security.

A 2022 KPMG study found that, in 2021, Europe consumed 35.5 billion counterfeit and contraband cigarettes; an increase of 3.9%, or 1.3 billion, from the year prior. This resulted in a loss of 10.4 billion euros ($11 billion) in tax revenue across the continent; a marked increase of 22%, or 1.9 billion euros ($2 billion) from the year before.

KPMG also found that approximately 8.1% of all cigarettes consumed in Europe that year were either illegally manufactured or smuggled.

In Poland and Belarus at least, illegal cigarette consumption was found to have dropped by 1.4 billion and 1 billion, respectively, from the year prior.

The study notes, however, that border closures brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic could have played a role in the drop in overall consumption figures—as was the case across nearly all transnational markets—and that the yet to be seen 2022 figures could rise as a result.