Local February 5, 2024 | 7:00 am

In the Dominican Republic nearly 3 out of every 10 cigarettes belong to the illicit trade

Panama—According to Crime Stoppers, around 3 out of every 10 cigarettes belong to the illicit trade in the Dominican Republic.

Some 15 containers of contraband cigarettes enter Panama every month, making the Central American country the gateway for illegal cigarettes from Latin America and the Caribbean.

This reality was captured with a container building strategically located in the Cinta Costera 3, Panama City, by CBLA – Crime Stoppers, the regional office of an international organization that seeks to contribute to the construction of multidimensional security and facilitates anonymous, reliable, and secure citizen participation in crimes in 7 regions worldwide.

According to Crime Stoppers, this installation of containers is not only a wake-up call to citizens and authorities on the occasion of the Conference of the Parties (COP10), to be held in Panama from February 5 to 10, 2024, but an opportunity to expose the need to strengthen public policies, reform and harmonization of the laws of that country, to address cigarette smuggling, whose consequences have a direct impact on the entire region, as well as in the lives of its inhabitants.

Prohibitionist or extreme public policies, such as raising taxes or prohibiting the use of electronic cigarettes, vaporizers, and similar electronic devices, which are contained in Law 315, in force in Panama, generate a demand for the establishment of a black market, causing severe consequences for Panama and the region.

Economic losses and effects on health and safety
Contraband cigarettes affect health, as they are cheaper and encourage more people to smoke. In addition, they represent a loss of millions of dollars for the States of the region and organized crime and cigarette cartels; illegal money launderers use Panama as the epicenter of their activities related to smuggling. At the same time, this activity serves to finance the operation of significant crimes, such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, in collaboration with the gangs that distribute the product in countries such as Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, among others.

The illicit cigarette trade in 2020 implied a loss of more than 165 million dollars in annual taxes for the Panamanian State. The tax loss is alarming if smuggling figures have increased from 60% to 92% in only six years. But it does not stop there. 50% of contraband cigarettes in the region are distributed from Panama.

According to Alejo Campos of Crime Stoppers, to minimize the consequences of illegal cigarette smuggling, “It is necessary to create more effective laws to prevent, prosecute and punish this crime; and also to offer alternatives to the tobacco consuming public, such as the introduction of smokeless cigarettes and the like as a method of reducing consumption.”

He also warned that “Law 315 of 2022 that prohibits the use, importation, and commercialization of electronic nicotine delivery systems, electronic cigarettes, vaporizers, tobacco heaters, and other similar devices, with or without nicotine in Panama, is creating a parallel illegal market of contraband products and has left the Ministry of Health of this country without the possibility of exercising control and protecting consumers.”

Regarding such protection, Campos considered that “civil society, consumers, government and industry should be involved in the discussions of the legal framework and provide alternatives based on science.”

An alternative
The spokesperson of the organization referred to the fact that countries such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and the United States have found that electronic cigarettes, without combustion and other similar systems, an alternative up to 95% less harmful than conventional cigarettes, managing to legalize them and offer better options for their citizens, thus avoiding illegal smuggling.

Campos added that it is necessary to follow up on the distribution of the Selective Consumption Tax (ISC), of which a large percentage should be transferred to the Ministry of Health and the National Oncology Institute of Panama. Still, these transfers have not been made entirely, being two government institutions with budgetary needs.

The security implications of cigarette smuggling, due to its strong connections with organized crime and terrorist financing, are problematic. High profits combined with low risks and penalties make it increasingly attractive to criminals as it is a highly profitable product, easy to transport, subject to few controls, and penalties, when applied, are much laxer than penalties for other crimes, such as drug trafficking.

Crime Stoppers’ statements come within the framework of COP10, where 1,200 leaders committed to the cause are expected to attend and where the “road map” of strategies for the implementation of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and Prevention of Tobacco-Related Mortality will be defined.

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