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Why Counterfeit Tobacco Is Plaguing France

Bill Wirtz

When asked how expensive a pack of cigarettes should be in order to reduce the general consumption of tobacco, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron responded, "I believe that €10 is an adequate price. I am ready for that."

Indeed, it seems that French politicians are in a race to determine how much they can do to reduce smoking while ignoring the fact that legislative action has severe consequences in the marketplace.

The Attack on Tobacco

The cigarette tax has only helped one group of people: tobacco counterfeiters.In 2008, France banned smoking in bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, a law that failed to have any impact on overall tobacco consumption. In fact, the quantity of tobacco sold immediately after the ban rose by 1,500 tons.

The French government then promptly reacted by instituting an anti-tobacco tax policy, increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes by 300 percent over the next three years.

Between 2010 and 2013, the price increased by €1 per pack on average and 80 percent of that cost went towards the paying the tax. 

These price increases have been pursued ever since, so that the average 20-pack of cigarettes costs €7 today, double the price that it was in 2002. That is good news for one group of people: tobacco counterfeiters.

The Rise of Counterfeit Cigarettes 

Although tobacco counterfeiting has been a problem ever since tobacco was commercialized, the French government’s aggressive anti-tobacco tax policy has made the situation considerably worse.

Almost 15 percent of all cigarettes in France have been produced in "shady" conditions.

A 2015 study by the audit company KPMG revealed that France is the biggest consumer of fake tobacco in Europe, with an estimated sale of 9 billion cigarettes.

This means that almost 15 percent of all cigarette packs you see on the street have been produced in "shady" conditions, by even shadier people intent on profiting off the government’s regulations.

Some might be tempted to dismiss this problem, especially since the cigarettes taste, more or less, the same. However, the French press has repeatedly reported on the additional health and environmental hazards associated with fake cigarettes.

For instance, “fake” cigarettes use paper that doesn't stop burning when the consumer stops smoking, increasing the risk of fire in case the lit cigarette is left somewhere.

More dangerous than these environmental hazards are the ingredients themselves: counterfeit cigarettes use three times more cadmiumwhich can cause renal failure or injuries to the live—and arsenic—which has been proven to cause lung cancer. These cigarettes have also been found to contain hair, cement, and mouse feces.

UK-estimates released by the Local Government Association have put the level of cadmium in counterfeit cigarettes at around 500 percent higher than ordinary brands, making them considerably more dangerous to consume.

The United Kingdom, which also has very high cigarette taxes, has put more effort into policing counterfeiters in the past several years, yet their concern isn't only with the health of the everyday smoker.

French politicians continue to increase taxes on cigarettes, feeding the tobacco mafia with customers.

According to the police, the illegal activity of counterfeiting cigarettes is often linked to other areas of crime, like money laundering and human trafficking.

The Seen and the Unseen

A 2015 report by the French Union for Industrial Production points to the fact that 20 percent of illicit cigarette sales finance international terrorism (according to the French Centre d'analyse du terrorisme in 2015). This number has been filtered out of a total number of 75 international prosecutions involving large-scale counterfeiting of tobacco products.

And yet, even in light of this information, French politicians continue to increase taxes on cigarettes, feeding the tobacco mafia with customers.

It is a classic example of the politics of the seen and the unseen. What is seen is the fact that some individuals gave up smoking because of the increased price. But the unseen is reflected in the worrisome consequences on human health for those who buy and consume fake cigarettes. It is easy to imagine that low-wage earners, confronted with the steadily increasing price of tobacco, are the most vulnerable.

A policy that unintentionally provides greater financial resources to organized crime and terrorist groups, and that ultimately reduces the safety of tobacco products should be looked at more critically.

If France continues with its stubborn anti-tobacco policy, then the advancements made in the past decades regarding health education will disappear.

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