Algirdas Semeta, Commissioner for Taxation, Customs, Anti-Fraud and Audit, today opened a high-level conference in Dublin to reinforce EU-US cooperation in the fight against cigarette smuggling. The aim of the conference is to bring together the top experts in this field to see how transatlantic cooperation can be further strengthened when it comes to identifying and dismantling organised crime groups and undermining tobacco smugglers. The illegal cigarette trade costs EU taxpayers an estimated € 10 billion a year in lost revenue. It also contributes to even greater problems, such as funding terrorism and organised crime. Given the global nature of the tobacco illegal trade, EU-US cooperation is vital to ensure the success of international operations to fight it. The Commission's Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the Member States already work closely with law enforcement agencies in the United States in tackling international cigarette smuggling, and a number of successful operations have resulted from this cooperation.
Commissioner Semeta said: “Cigarette smuggling, by its very nature, ignores borders and threatens citizens all over the world. That is why a strong and active global response to the problem is crucial. Our partnership with the USA in fighting this criminal activity has already led to a number of victories. It is evident from today’s conference that there is strong commitment on both sides to continuing this cooperation, and to developing it even further.”
Underlining the devastating economic impact of cigarette smuggling, the Commissioner also warned smokers that they may be paying very dearly for an apparently cheap cigarette. "There is no doubt that serious organised crime groups are involved in tobacco smuggling. By buying cheap cigarettes, you are threatening your society by encouraging criminality".
This is the first such high-level conference to be held between the EU and USA on cigarette smuggling, and both sides are represented by experts and law-enforcers in this field. In addition to Irish finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, who opened the conference with the Commissioner, EU participants include members of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and investigators and prosecutors from the Member States. On the U.S. side, the US Department of Justice, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau are all represented.
Successful EU-US cooperation
EU-US cooperation in fighting the illegal tobacco trade has already led to a number of successful operations. Below are two examples.
The Miami Case
The Miami Case is a major international cigarette smuggling case, coordinated by OLAF in conjunction with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (U.S. ICE) and the U.S. Department of Justice. It was initiated following a request for assistance from Irish Customs after the seizure of 6 containers of cigarettes in Ireland, falsely declared as "furniture". A subsequent mission to Miami by OLAF and Irish agents quickly identified large-scale cigarette smuggling into several EU countries, with estimated revenue losses of €100 million. The investigation covered 9 Member States (Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) and 7 third countries (U.S.A., Canada, Chile, Uruguay, Panama, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates).The case is on-going, but has so far led to the seizure of 43 million cigarettes and 11 arrests in the EU. In February 2010, one of the principal suspects in the U.S. was arrested, charged and sentenced to 2 years prison by the Court in the Southern District of Florida. In addition, he was ordered to re-pay $1.5 million in restitution. Further important developments can be anticipated.
Operation Barrie was coordinated by OLAF in conjunction with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (U.S. ICE) and the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Belgian authorities. It relates to the activities of a major criminal organisation involved in smuggling huge numbers of cigarettes into EU Member States (mainly Belgium and France). The main suspect in this case was a Chinese person with Gambian nationality, responsible for the illegal importation of hundreds of millions of counterfeit cigarettes into the EU. Through OLAF, it was established that this person had been arrested in the USA for illegally importing 42 containers of counterfeit NIKE shoes and for attempting to bribe US officials. He was also subject to money laundering investigations in the US. OLAF channels were used to establish the contacts with the US in order to cooperate on this case. On release from prison in the USA, the suspect was re-arrested by the U.S. authorities and extradited to Belgium to appear before Court. The Court hearings were finalised recently and 12 persons were sentenced. The main suspect in the case got a prison sentence of 5 years. In addition, thousands of euro in fines were charged to those convicted in this case.
For more information on OLAF’s work to tackle illegal tobacco, see: