Although officials and cigarette companies have invested millions of euros to fight the illegal trade, up to 22 billion illegally untaxed cigarettes – 400 million in Berlin alone – were smoked last year, the German Cigarette Association (ODP) and customs authorities told Die Welt newspaper on Tuesday.
Roughly 40 percent of all cigarettes smoked in the country go untaxed although the number skyrockets to 60 percent near the Polish border, according to paper.
Smugglers have become so brazen in recent years that they're selling their own special cigarette brands imported from countries like Russia or Moldova, none of which can be sold legally.
Among the best known is Jin Ling, which is produced exclusively for smuggling to Western Europe and has become one of the best-selling brands in Germany. A box with ten cigarette cartons goes for €22, giving sellers a more than 1,000 percent profit on boxes that can be bought wholesale for €2, according to Die Welt.
“It's more lucrative than hashish,” a security investigator for a legitimate German cigarette firm, told the newspaper.
Much smuggled tobacco is of inferior quality and is said to be sometimes infused with poisonous chemicals making them even more toxic than the legitimate stuff, but this does not seem to stop consumers from seeking it out.
The problem appears to be getting more complex as new smoking trends catch on and their devotees look for cheap tobacco. In March, police in North Rhine-Westphalia and colleagues in Sweden broke up an illegal operation, confiscating 620 kilograms of counterfeit water pipe tobacco and arresting nine people.
Among the factors driving tobacco smuggling is the opening of European borders, which makes it much easier to import illegal smokes. Huge Vietnamese gangs have also built up a massive criminal network, which seems almost impossible to slow down. Some observers suggest that rising cigarette taxes may also be driving people to purchase cheaper tobacco from smugglers.