Illicit tobacco plant may have exploited Ukrainian refugees

Italian police have taken down an illicit factory in Pomezia area near Rome, discovering machinery and materials for the production of counterfeit cigarettes.

Officers seized 82 tonnes of counterfeit cigarettes and packaging mimicking several top brands, including Philip Morris International's Marlboro.

One person was arrested during the raid – reported to be the ringleader of the operation – which was found to be using foreign workers, including a number of Ukrainian refugees as well as Russian and Moldovan nationals.

The Guardia di Finanza said the workers were subjected to gruelling shifts and forced to work in an unhealthy environment, in a room with bricked up windows and a lack of ventilation.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression – 90 per cent of whom are women and children – are at high risk of "sexual exploitation or other forms of gender-based violence, forced labour, domestic servitude or other slavery-like practises, forced begging or criminality."

The seized products included 44 tonnes of finished, packaged cigarettes, and 38 tonnes of foreign processed tobacco, which will all be destroyed. The value of the seizure is estimated to be equivalent to around €19m ($21m) in evaded taxes.

The arrested man is facing several charges, including smuggling, counterfeiting, illicit brokering and exploitation of labour, said the Guardia di Finanza in a statement.

There has been a big uptick in the production of illicit cigarettes and other tobacco products within the EU, with sizeable seizures in France, Belgium the Netherlands and Poland in the last few months.

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, to evade detection at the bloc's borders.

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.

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