2006-10-13 Nick Champeaux
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French custom authorities have crushed and burnt nine tons of counterfeit cigarettes

Cigarettes production lineCigarettes production line
As we told you in last week's edition of Network Europe, the authorities there have announced a blanket ban on smoking in public areas. Well not that the two issues are directly linked, but this week the French custom authorities have crushed and burnt nine tons of counterfeit cigarettes. They were part of the four containers, 37 tons of cigarettes, seized in April 2005 in the northern port of Le Havre: that's one point eight million packs, worth more than nine million euro. It was the biggest seizure of counterfeit tobacco in France.

Cigarettes now account for fifty per cent of counterfeit products seized by French customs. It's a new phenomenon, and France's Junior Economy Minister, Jean François Copé, is determined to fight it. That's what he told journalists in a warehouse where tons of fake cigarettes were stocked before destruction.

It's very impressive, as you can see it's part of the 37 tons of counterfeit cigarettes that have been seized in Le Havre. My government is determined to fight counterfeit products, because we are aware of the dangers that they can represent for people's health.

That doesn't mean that real cigarettes are not harmless though. It took two hours for the machine to destroy nine tons of counterfeit cigarettes: that's four hundred thousand packs, worth more than two million euro. There was a heavy tobacco smell in the air as the machine was crushing the packs, but it was a feast for the eyes of managers of the world's cigarette giant, Philip Morris.

Destruction of counterfeit cigarettesDestruction of counterfeit cigarettes
"It's an excellent day for us. This is full cooperation with customs. And the ultimate thing is the destruction of the goods."

Constantin Duros is head of the company's "brand integrity department". The department signed a partnership agreement with French customs a year ago, and now employs sixty people. They just collect information, send the information, advise custom authorities.

From what you are saying it sounds like they are Philip Morris custom officers?

"No they are not. We are not the law enforcement basically."

The cigarettes were made in China, where seventy per cent of counterfeit cigarettes are manufactured. They were stocked in lorry containers, hidden behind card board boxes declared as shoes, and shipped to Le Havre, in Northern France. Jean Yves Mahé is director of customs at the busy le Havre harbour.

"In a few years, we will have six million containers going through Le Havre per year. Smugglers always make one mistake, our job is to spot it, but I won't tell you which mistakes they normally make."

Destruction of counterfeit cigarettesDestruction of counterfeit cigarettes
Custom officers spotted the mistake and called in people from Philip Morris to make sure they were counterfeit products. There are several ways of finding out.

The ink is different, the tear tape is different, the aluminium foil is different, the packaging is different, the cellophane is different, the cigarette is different!

It's more difficult to stop counterfeiters. Especially since they now resort to radical measures to deliver the goods. Didier Mongin is Director General of French customs. He tells us about a new technique called "go fast".

"They use powerful cars with V6 engines, they drive them on highways at two hundred kilometres an hour, quite often at night, and they don't hesitate to drive through and destry toll barriers if necessary".

Criminal networks are also increasingly creative. French customs recently found three and half tons of cigarettes hidden in boxes of half melted ice cream.

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