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Greece Busts International Cigarette Smuggling Ring

Greece smuggled cigarettes
One of the shipping containers holding the hundreds of millions of illegal cigarettes. Credit: Greek Government.

Authorities seized 338 million smuggled cigarettes at the port of Piraeus, Greece according to an announcement issued on Friday.

The commander of the Independent Public Revenue Authority (AADE), George Pitsilis, made the announcement, highlighting that the cigarettes are worth 72 million euros ($87 million) in duties and taxes.

Smuggled cigarettes found in Greece

A total of 35 shipping containers labelled as transporting “food items” were discovered to be filled with cigarettes. The smuggling operation is international, with the cigarettes having originated from Dubai.

AADE first begun tracking the smuggling ring in February when they took notice of four shipping containers which were addressed to a dubious individual.

Following the first suspicious shipments, the government agency traced a second round of suspicious shipping containers. The second group of containers were addressed to a different name; however, the contact details provided listed the same telephone number and address.

The cigarettes were being transported from Dubai to Syria, with the eventual goal of being distributed throughout a number of Arab countries.

Using x-ray technology as well as other screening methods, the cigarettes hidden within the shipping containers were discovered.

Speaking to the press on Friday, Pitsilis declared “the smugglers cannot hide.”

Also present at the announcement was the General Manager of Piraeus Customs, Kostantinos Mourtidis.

The alleged ringleader of the operation is Syrian and is wanted in multiple countries according to information that was made available to the press.

AADE is cooperating with multiple international bodies in order to make an arrest in conjunction with the case. The British HM Customs and Excise agency and the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL), are also involved.

Strategy for stopping smuggling

Pitsilis also outlined the AADE’s strategy for fighting smuggling during his address to reporters on Friday. He said there were three main steps to stopping smuggling in Greece:

Firstly, there needs to be a continuous bolstering of audit services. Secondly, an integrated monitoring framework in order to keep track of supply chains needs to be established.

Thirdly, communication and cooperation between all official bodies who focus on smuggling needs to be continually fostered.

Cigarette smuggling in Greece

Cigarette smuggling is a longstanding problem in Greece, with the 2008 economic crisis reportedly having contributed to the crime.

The country has the largest proportion of illegal cigarettes in the European Union, with smuggled cigarettes costing Greece 690 million euros ($837 million) in 2018.

Around 1.5 billion counterfeit cigarettes have been estimated to be in Greece, and there are widespread firsthand accounts that counterfeit cigarettes are widely available even in parts of downtown Athens. 

According to a report commissioned by Philip Morris International (PMI) in 2018, the consumption of illegal cigarettes in the EU was estimated at 8.6% of total usage — equivalent to a whopping 43.6 billion cigarettes.

Speaking to Bloomberg in 2016, Iakovos Kargarotos, vice-president of Philip Morris International’s affiliate in Greece Papastratos AVES, said “Illicit cigarette and bulk tobacco trade strips the Greek state from significant revenue each year that could be used for paying pensions, salaries, and social benefits.

“It creates a big public revenue hole that taxpayers have to fill.”

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