Contraband market bigger than ever

As much as 21 percent of Latvia’s population has bought contraband tobacco, contraband fuel or contraband alcohol over the past year, according to a survey carried out by the SKDS pollster.

The survey showed that 14 percent of respondents had bought illegal tobacco, 9 percent illegal fuel and 7 percent illegal alcohol over the past year.

As might be expected consumption of contraband goods is the highest in the eastern Latvian region of Latgale which borders with Russia and Belarus from which contraband goods frequently come.

In Latgale, 16 percent of respondents bought contraband tobacco, 22 percent contraband fuel and 13 percent contraband alcohol over the past year.

The respective figures in the Latvian capital Riga are 13 percent, 8 percent and 6 percent.

Perhaps more significantly, 30 percent of respondents believed there is nothing wrong in buying contraband goods, while 55 percent see it as a bad business and 15 percent are undecided.

As many as 52 percent think that the state should step up the fight against contraband while 15 percent would prefer that the state should become more lax about contraband, which would make contraband goods more readily available and, possibly, even cheaper. 10 percent prefer things to stay as they are.

38 percent share the opinion that cigarette smugglers are ordinary people, who have turned to this illegal trade in an attempt to escape poverty. But 37 percent said cigarette contraband was the business of organized crime groups, and 16 percent believe that this trade has been picked by ordinary people driven by greed and looking to make easy profit. Another 11 percent found it hard to give a definite reply to the question.

The survey was carried out on September 25-29 among 1,005 respondents aged 18-74 years.

Underlining the sheer scale of Latvia's contraband problem  law enforcement authorities said Tuesday they have seized 138.9 million illegal cigarettes in the first eight months of this year which is more than during the full year of 2014.

Representatives of the State Revenue Service (VID) said during a news conference on Tuesday  that there were 130.1 million contraband cigarettes seized in Latvia in 2014 and 83.94 million in 2013.

Edijs Ceipe, Director of the Customs Police at the VID, told the press that 78 percent of all contraband cigarettes seized by the Latvian authorities in the first eight months of 2015 had been seized during major criminal proceedings. A case is considered a major criminal proceeding when 100,000 or more contraband cigarettes have been seized.

He said the average amount of taxes that ended up in the Latvian state budget from sale of legal cigarettes was 130 euros per 1,000 cigarettes.

Most contraband cigarettes arrive in Latvia from Belarus by rail, but illegal cigarettes are also brought from Russia and Asia, Ceipe said. Large-scale tobacco contraband is mostly a business for organized crime groups which have different gangs working on different phases of the process. Some gangs are responsible for bringing contraband goods from third countries, others handle reloading, storage and retail distribution in Latvia and there are also gangs specializing in further transportation of illegal cigarettes to Europe – Germany or the United Kingdom.

A number of public authorities, NGOs and business entities have joined their forces to conduct the campaign aimed at reducing the tolerant public attitude to contraband goods in Latvia.  

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