12 more arrests in EU crackdown on illicit tobacco

European law enforcement has chalked up another win in the war against the illicit trade in tobacco, this time against a Russian-speaking organised crime network.

The operation resulted in the seizure of €1m ($1.2m) in cash, 11 vehicles and hundreds of counterfeit cigarette cartridges, and led to 12 arrests in Belgium and France, including the masterminds of the network, according to Europol. Most of those detained are Chechen nationals.

Two of the individuals arrested in Belgium are awaiting surrender to the French authorities under a European arrest warrant.

The gang was involved in the large-scale production and distribution of counterfeit cigarettes, and is thought to have distributed at least 100m cigarettes since the autumn of 2020, with an estimated value of more than €45m.

28 locations were targeted in the raids, and supplies to make 1.8 million cigarette packages were also discovered at one of them.

The counterfeit cigarettes were stored in warehouses in Tienen, Belgium, before being subsequently distributed among buyers from France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

Just last month, Europol helped coordinate another operation that resulted in the arrest of 30 organised crime syndicate members in the Netherlands and Poland.

Compared with genuine tobacco products, the origins of materials used in counterfeit cigarettes in most cases are unknown, and the manufacturing process lacks regulation and quality control.

Previous studies have shown elevated concentrations of heavy elements including lead and cadmium, which are known to contribute to the harmful effects of tobacco.

The consumption of illicit cigarettes in Europe fell below 8 per cent of total cigarette use last year, but was still equivalent to nearly 39bn smokes and €9.5bn in lost tax revenues, according to a 2020 KPMG report.

Law enforcement agencies have suggested more and more counterfeit cigarettes are being produced in illegal factories within the EU, rather than being imported from other countries.

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