Members of global, regional and local law enforcement, revenue and customs agencies will meet in Cape Town at the end of the month to collaborate on efforts to address the scourge of illicit tobacco trade in sub-Saharan Africa.
South Africa has the highest illicit tobacco incidence in the region and is listed amongst the top five illicit markets globally. In 2013, an estimated 31% of all cigarettes consumed in the country were illicit. In 2014, this number is still around 23%. These cigarettes are either manufactured locally and not declared for taxes or smuggled into the country by a growing network of criminals. In terms of impact on the fiscus, more than R20 billion in tax revenue has been lost since 2010.
The illicit cigarette problem is not limited to South Africa, but extends throughout the Southern Africa region, with Zambia, Namibia and Swaziland having estimated illicit incidences of well above the global average of between 10% and 12%.
“The problem runs far deeper than enormous losses of fiscal income that could have been put to good use to bolster government efforts in education, infrastructure development and poverty alleviation,” says Francois van der Merwe, CEO of the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa.
“A major issue is that the illicit market is closely linked to trans-national organised crime syndicates. Those that trade in illicit products, whether it is cigarettes, alcohol, textiles, DVDs, and environmental crimes such as Rhino poaching or abalone smuggling, are most often also involved in other serious crimes and even the funding of terrorism and money launderingi”
According to Interpol, criminal organisations are attracted by the lucrative profits involved in trading legitimate goods through illicit channelsii. 2
The objective of the conference is to build a foundation of close collaboration between affected countries in the region as well as their law enforcement, customs, treasury and revenue departments. Because the health agenda of governments is also affected by illicit trade, it is important that Health Ministries also become part of the efforts against illicit trade.
“We have seen first-hand what effective focus on combatting illicit trade by government can achieve. South Africa saw a marked decrease in illicit from 31% to 23% in the last year. This is in most part due to the excellent efforts by the various Law Enforcement/Police, Customs and Revenue, Treasury and Defence departments in the South African government.”
Van der Merwe says that while the declining numbers in South Africa are encouraging, this does not bode well for the rest of the region as organised crime is a moving target prone to shifting its focus to ‘easier’ markets when the going gets tough.
“If the pressure is increased in one market, syndicates simply move to the next, which is a real concern. Addressing this shift is one of the objectives of the conference. Imagine what we can achieve if not only government departments are working together to fight the illicit trade but countries too.”
The three day conference will include presentations by, amongst others, international policing organisation Interpol, the European Union’s law enforcement unit Europol, COMESA, UK customs officials, and a host of in-country revenue, customs and law enforcement specialists from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.