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Contraband tobacco: between a rock and a hard place

Contraband tobacco: between a rock and a hard place

An hour away from the City of Bishoftu known for its beach side scenery and still within the proximity of the capital, the City of Adama is a sizzling society of entrepreneurs.

Overcrowded in some parts, almost abandoned in others with a fast-growing population with little regards to the vision of proper urban planning, the road side part of its downtown is of dotted unfinished buildings coupled with green space used as dumping ground of waste has seen loads unmarked trucks move into the area.

This are no ordinary tracks coming from the Eastern part of the nation coming to distribute contraband products of tobacco destined to the capital.

For Henok Alemayehu (using an alias name), 43, that has been his lifeline and that of most of his friends. He is part of a network of many that is used to distribute these products in many cities using young people in their late teens and early 20s to sell them for him.

“We have many trucks come in every week and we are used to distribute them too many cities around. There is no official transaction. We simply use cash to purchase from them, without knowing from whom and we move on with our products and we make hefty profits from it,” he told The Reporter, as he waited his load on a Wednesday morning.

Despite much attempt to end such operation, the status quo has remained the same. Much of the dealing happens within the proximity of police officers, who seat ideally as transaction is conducted openly often times in front of young adolescent citizens with spending power and near school areas. 

The practice has benefited many underground players, but has brought little to the makeup of the city now dotted with shiny buildings serving as average hotels, packed as “international”.

His other friend who is also in the business of contraband tobacco left his regular position with the area, ‘Kebele’ to also earn a wage, that seemed out of reach for such a humbling position.

The now "independent businessman", as he describes himself was in line to receive some of the illicit tobacco and transport them to the capital and distribute them among local distributors, who would further sell it to consumers and duty paid products, taking a slice of earning that would otherwise go to the government or the legal tobacco producers.

“With that an enacted channel and contraband sells of products that are being sold in the open, if I was to do the business according to the book, I would not last a bit. But this practice has been going on forever and there is no real intent to change it as many invisible but powerful actors are involved in the trade,” he told The Reporter.

Welcome to Adama, a city of little infrastructures and social safety nets, but a prime example of the shortcomings of the Ethiopian system that allows contraband to strive while depriving the nation’s much needed resources to afford more than 100 million people basic social safety net and the infrastructure that is needed to accommodate them.

This comes as Ethiopia enacts practical laws and emphasis on the need of public health education to warn the public on the risks associated to cigarette smoking, and a growing consumption of nicotine with little practical action taken by the authorities.

According to the most recent Ethiopian Global Adult Tobacco Survey from 2016, the only national survey of its kind, 3.4 million Ethiopian adults use tobacco products regularly and 2.2 percent of the population smoke cigarettes daily.

The survey concluded how, “tobacco use is relatively low in Ethiopia but the country is at risk of tobacco epidemic “an early warning to the nation.

In addition, consumption has been growing by three percent annually, largely as a result of an increase in production tobacco from international players now operational within the nation of more than 100 million with a growing youthful population with spending power, a prime target of tobacco producers who are heavily targeting nations such as Ethiopia.

For Henok and his friends, it is a booming business of illicit business that are out of bounds of authorities competing with ones produced by the Ethiopian National Tobacco Enterprise which has boosted its production by two billion pieces of cigarettes to six billion annually starting in 2018.

Last year, the Office of Prime Minister of Ethiopia established the National Task Force on illegal trade of tobacco to fight the growing contraband and illicit trade led by Demeke Mekonnen, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia, along with other senior government ministers from Health, Agriculture, Trade, the National Intelligence and Security of Services, the police sector and representatives from the regions among others, placing the urgency of the issues as an urgent government agenda.

An increase in production and exportation of the products means an increase in number of people suffering from tobacco related illness, which is killing over 17,500 citizens annually, according Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health.

Frustrated by this reality, the Ethiopian government introduced a new law that aims to reduce the consumption of tobacco, especially among youths. The law prohibits outdoor use of tobacco near health care facilities, government institutions and education institutions, among other places and have also introduced a mixed 30 percent hike in excise tax on cigarettes.

However, many of the schools The Reporter visited in the capital, despite with no sight of signs, there are plenty opportunities for young people to be lured into buying cigarettes, with stores and young people selling to them in the open. As well, there are also regular houses open for rent, which allows anyone to use for the consumption of all kinds of addictive products.

The new law also put a ban on tobacco advertising and promotion, while restricting the sale and consumption of flavored tobacco items. It also forced the tobacco monopoly in Ethiopia to put a warning label on its product, covering at least 70 percent of the front and back of its packages.

However, little success has been achieved in reducing its use, even after the law has been put into practice and much talk of the authorities raining on the players of the illegal trade and importation of these items.

Earlier this year, Ethiopia’s Custom Commission revealed that around 45 percent of tobacco products in Ethiopia are being supplied by smugglers and contraband Even, in Eastern Part of Ethiopia, illegal suppliers of tobacco have a market share of as high as 90 percent.

The Ethiopian Customs Commission, along with the Federal Customs Commission, the regional Customs Branch Office partnered with Spotlight Communication and Marketing to look closer to the issue of contraband in Harar and Dire Dawa.

“Every day, we are victimizing children mothers and the society with poor quality products. This is not solely the government’s problem, we should all be doing our part in defining the depth and breadth of the disaster and preventing the issue,” Dineer Ahmed, the Deputy Officer of Harar City Peace and Security Office told The Reporter.

Government officials and tobacco companies as well as agents are a part of the tobacco contraband routes. Even this even resulted in the death of civilians and loyal police officers when they were trying to stop smugglers enter to the country.

Retailers in Addis Ababa also the part of the contraband network and big tobacco corporations reportedly have also a big hand in financing smugglers and providing products. Deals among the suppliers and factories is usually made through brokers and made outside Ethiopia in the presence of top custom officers in Ethiopia.

According to the National Tobacco Enterprise, 40 percent of tobaccos sold in Ethiopia are contraband, not only affecting the financial stability of the nation by way of taxes, but out of the bounds of authorities to understand its impact within the nation.

Meanwhile, with the rise in market share of illegally imported tobacco items, consumption of these products is alarmingly growing in markets like Addis Ababa where the legal producer used to have a higher market share.

According to BMC Public Health journal, there are seven million people who die from smoking cigarette annually and highlights how, “The low and middle income countries are especially facing an increasing burden of tobacco related disease (and that) Africa, particularly sub – Saharan Africa, is experiencing increasing tobacco use”.

The World Health Organization estimates 8.9 percent of Ethiopian men and 16,800 Ethiopians are killed via preventable disease such as lung cancer. This comes as Ethiopia continues to have dwindling resources to build its health care system and protect the victims of tobacco, which is now in the midst of world tobacco growers’ interest who seems Ethiopia as a place to invest in, competing with illegal traders while producing untold casualties.