Scientists at the JRC have developed a new test to tell where a cigarette has come from - and if the brand on the label corresponds to what's in the pack.
The test can help authorities to detect illicit tobacco products and trace trafficking routes. Law enforcement agencies regularly carry out tariff-related checks on tobacco. One standard test measures the 'cut width' (the width the tobacco has been cut at during production), as fine cut tobacco for cigarettes is taxed more highly than other smoking tobaccos.
However, these types of tests are not necessarily useful for detecting illicit tobacco. Only a limited number of customs laboratories in EU Member States currently have the necessary equipment to perform more advanced tests. There's also a need for reference databases to make comparisons.
The new method has the advantage of speed and simplicity. The measurement itself - which uses a near infrared spectrometer - takes only a few minutes. The obtained spectra are stored in a database and further processed with machine learning software to create classification models.
The spectrum of a suspicious tobacco product can then be compared with tobacco of known provenance to decide whether it is genuine or counterfeit. Once the database is set up, the evaluation can also be done within minutes.
If a counterfeit product is detected, information can be extracted on the geographical origin of the tobacco, which can give an indication where the illicit product may have been manufactured.
The tests are also non-destructive – once a pellet has been prepared it can be reused as many times as needed. This contrasts to other techniques where, for example, the samples have to be digested by strong acids or extracted by chemical solvents before measurements can be made.
Tackling the illicit tobacco trade
According to estimates of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) the trade in illicit cigarettes causes losses of €10bn to EU Member States' tax revenues. Counterfeit products can also pose an increased risk to health due to uncontrolled production processes or treatments.
In addition to the variability in tobacco varieties and processing techniques, 600 to 1400 additives are added to cigarette tobacco, making it a complex matrix to be analysed. These additives together with the specific blend of tobacco types account for the uniqueness of each brand of cigarettes determining their aroma and taste.
And just like other illicit practices, tobacco contraband and counterfeiting are clandestine activities in constant fluctuation and change. Fraudsters go to great lengths at concealing and changing patterns to escape controls.
The new approach can be an important tool to support law enforcement authorities such as customs and police officers in their fight against cigarette fraud by detecting illicit tobacco products entering the EU.
The JRC operates a dedicated laboratory facility (TOBLAB) to create chemical fingerprints, which is useful intelligence for law enforcement agencies in the EU's Member States and OLAF. TOBLAB holds an annual workshop attended by representative of customs laboratories and investigators from across the EU.
OLAF investigates cases of customs fraud as they are financially damaging to the EU taxpayers. OLAF has an explicit mandate to fight cigarette smuggling as part of the EU efforts to curb this phenomenon. OLAF works in close cooperation with national law enforcement agencies and customs services both inside and outside the EU to prevent, detect and, investigate tobacco smuggling – so that evaded duties can be recovered and perpetrators prosecuted.
Read more in: J. Omar et al.: Chemometric approach for discriminating tobacco trademarks by near infrared spectroscopy. Forensic Science International 294 (2019) 15-20.