Customs thwart illegal cigarette trade in the EU and UK: 17 arrests and 67 million cigarettes seized

21 December 2020
Press Release
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Total seizure worth €35.82 million and tax loss prevented from this illegal trade estimated at €30 million

Law enforcement authorities from 15 EU Member States* and the UK teamed up last month to dismantle a criminal network illegally trading cigarettes. Supported by Europol and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the joint operation took place between 2 and 13 November 2020. Led by the customs departments of Lithuania and the UK, the operation was facilitated by intelligence analysis of excise duty suspension abuse. The fraud scheme consisted of illegally diverting cigarettes from EU internal and external transit customs procedures to the black market without paying millions in taxes.

The operation led to:

  • 17 suspects arrested;
  • 67 million cigarettes and 2.6 tonnes of tobacco seized worth €35.82 million, with  88% of the cigarettes seized produced in Belarus;
  • the most significant seizures of the illegally traded cigarettes were made in Lithuania (28.75 million), the UK (9 million), Poland (6 million), Ireland (3.5 million), Romania (2.2 million), Sweden (500 000), Latvia (740 000) and Croatia (150 000);
  • Ten vehicles seized in eight of the participating countries.

Excise duty fraud mechanism

This joint operation targeted a fraud mechanism of duty suspension abuse:

  • cigarettes produced inside the EU and declared for export or intra-EU delivery were moved under VAT and excise suspension. However, the goods never left EU customs territory or were not delivered within the EU as indicated in customs procedures and the relevant documents; 
  • cigarettes withdrawn from transit regime or released into free circulation in the EU under VAT and excise suspension were distributed illegally without payment of these taxes and duties.

Europol and OLAF support

Europol and OLAF actively supported the operation. Europol facilitated the cross-border cooperation among Member States, set up preparatory operational meetings, enabled information exchange and cross-checks and provided analytical support and operational expertise. During the operation, OLAF also provided the tools for a secure exchange of information between the customs authorities and monitored and crosschecked the information exchanged. 

Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, Europol supports the 27 EU Member States in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organised forms of crime. We also work with many non-EU partner states and international organisations. From its various threat assessments to its intelligence-gathering and operational activities, Europol has the tools and resources it needs to do its part in making Europe safer. In 2019, Europol supported 1 874 international operations.

*Participating EU Member States: Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden.


In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year Policy Cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organised crime. In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organised and serious international crime to the EU. This is achieved by improving and strengthening cooperation between the relevant services of EU Member States, institutions and agencies, as well as non-EU countries and organisations, including the private sector where relevant. Excise fraud is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.