By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times from Sofia
The measures Bulgaria has taken to fight cigarette smuggling are yielding results, according to the national Customs Agency.
A total of 80 million contraband cigarettes have been seized since the beginning of this year, the Sofia-based agency told SETimes.
It listed “regular meetings with big manufacturers and traders of tobacco goods” among the host of measures initiated by the customs administration, as part of the stepped-up efforts in the fight against cigarette smuggling.
“A total of 691 pre-trial proceedings were launched between January and October 2012,” the agency said.
The 7.5 percent year-on-year increase in revenues from the excise duty on tobacco products shows that the measures the customs administration has taken in the fight against the illicit cigarette trade have been effective, according to the agency.
“The revenues for the first 11 months of 2012 stand at nearly 853 million euros, accounting for 45 percent of the overall revenues from excise duties,” the agency said in a statement.
Aside from the measures, nearly 900 staff members, or a third of customs personnel, have been dismissed in the last three years in a bid to clean up the system, which used to be perceived as one of the most corrupt in the country.
Up to 700 new staff was hired through an open and transparent procedure, agency head Vanyo Tanov said in an interview with Bulgarian National Television last month.
“We are perhaps the only state institution in which every single officer has been appointed after having gone through this procedure and after winning the contest” for the respective position, he said.
His remarks came a day after customs intelligence and investigation officers broke up an illegal depot in Sofia, seizing more than 25 million smuggled cigarettes.
Tanov described the operation as “the most serious attack” of this type in nearly a decade. The cigarettes were most likely manufactured in Dubai, he said. The value of the consignment exceeded 4 million euros, with unpaid excise duties of about 2 million euros.
“Bulgaria sits at a crossroads. The shortest route to other European countries runs through its territory,” Tanov said. “Unlike the Central European countries, Bulgaria also borders non-EU nations,” which are not obliged to apply the EU excise duty rules — hence, the much lower prices of cigarettes there.
The excise duty on cigarettes in Bulgaria is 78 euros per 1,000 cigarettes.
More than 40 percent of adults in the EU’s poorest member are smokers. More than 500,000 Bulgarians said in a June survey that that they buy contraband cigarettes, and will continue to do so, Tanov said.
Simeon Petkov, a 67-year-old pensioner, who has been smoking for nearly five decades, said he buys contraband cigarettes because he cannot afford legal ones.
“My pension is roughly 130 euros. So I simply have no choice,” he told SETimes.
But there are others, like university student Maria Hristova, who refuse to buy smuggled cigarettes.
“I don’t want to take extra risks,” she told SETimes. “Smoking is harmful enough as it is for me to buy cigarettes of an uncertain origin and containing God knows what.”
In 2010, Bulgaria was among the countries where illegally imported cigarettes, including those for other markets, exceeded 40 percent. Last year, 22 percent of all cigarettes sold in the country were contraband, with the share falling to 19 percent this year, Tanov said.