tocacco plant Native American Tobaccoo flower, leaves, and buds

tocacco Tobacco is an annual or bi-annual growing 1-3 meters tall with large sticky leaves that contain nicotine. Native to the Americas, tobacco has a long history of use as a shamanic inebriant and stimulant. It is extremely popular and well-known for its addictive potential.

tocacco nicotina Nicotiana tabacum

tocacco Nicotiana rustica leaves. Nicotiana rustica leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana tabacum (common tobacco) leaves contain about 1 to 3%

tocacco cigar A cigar is a tightly rolled bundle of dried and fermented tobacco which is ignited so that its smoke may be drawn into the mouth. Cigar tobacco is grown in significant quantities in Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Sumatra, Philippines, and the Eastern United States.

tocacco Tobacco is an agricultural product processed from the fresh leaves of plants in the genus Nicotiana. It can be consumed, used as an organic pesticide, and in the form of nicotine tartrate it is used in some medicines. In consumption it may be in the form of cigarettes smoking, snuffing, chewing, dipping tobacco, or snus.

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Tobacco in China

It’s hard to overstate the ubiquity of tobacco in China, a country home to one of the world’s most elaborate and entrenched smoking cultures. Here, the introductory exchange of cigarettes is as ritualized as a handshake, while expensive packs moonlight as everything from wedding gifts to bribes — even offerings on ancestors’ tombs.

As an official from the tobacco company Rothmans once put it, “Thinking about Chinese smoking statistics is like trying to think about the limits of space.” Every year, China’s smokers consume one-third of the world’s tobacco: an overwhelming 2.2 trillion cigarettes. Cigarette-related mortality levels, too, are equally staggering, with fully one-third of all Chinese men under age 30 predicted to die from the pandemic.

Like anything else related to tobacco in China, the number of counterfeits flooding the domestic market is similarly off the charts. “Each of us has come up with our own strategy to deal with it by now,” says one Beijing smoker, who personally refuses to buy at locations where he doesn’t know the owner. The problem is so bad that on trains, conductors roam the aisles, industriously hawking 75 cent keychain lights that purportedly reveal fake packs.

imageFrom Chinese ports like Xiamen, 40-foot containers of cigarettes depart for high-tax markets like those in the United States and European Union. Te-Ping Chen/ICIJAfter all, while the West is the most lucrative counterfeit market, for smugglers, it’s also the riskiest. Inside China, local ties and protectionism afford some degree of control: a friendly $10,000 tribute, one customs official confides, has been the going rate to bribe a container out of the Xiamen ports in recent years. (And even without payment, inspection rates at China’s ports are a low one to two percent) Beyond China’s borders, though, containers are more vulnerable to detection by outside law enforcement, many of them newly vigilant against the fake trade.

“We’re seeing seizures all the time,” says PMI’s Robinson. In May, UK authorities seized over 20 million counterfeit Regals (valued at $8.6 million) imported from China into Southampton. Likewise that month, Spanish authorities grabbed 20 million fake Marlboros — falsely described as mattresses — imported from the Chinese ports of Chiwan and Shekou. Also in May, French customs intercepted more than 15 million made-in-China fake Marlboros outside Paris, some bearing Vietnamese as well as Arabic and French health warnings.

Nevertheless, says OLAF’s Rowan, such seizures are just “the tip of the iceberg.” Smugglers frequently ship cigarettes through an array of destinations such as Dubai and Singapore to mask a container’s origin, with some spending up to three months at sea before delivery. And even if a container is seized, given exorbitant per-container profits, the loss is a slim deterrent. “With nine containers seized in ten,” Rowan says, “[smugglers] still would not be losing money.”

For counterfeiters, the rewards are especially prodigious. According to manufacturers, state-of-the-art cigarette machines (available online from sites like can fetch a pricey $1.5 to $3 million. “But everyone knows that the investment can be recouped in just a few months of manufacturing,” says a Yunxiao broker. Some factories boast up to 500 workers and over $100 million in annual sales.

With so much profit at stake, this underground industry has cultivated a notably violent set of players. Past factory raids have yielded semi-automatic rifles and met with armed resistance, and every year, several state and private investigators are killed in their efforts to penetrate the trade. The average raid is carried out by hundreds of Chinese police. During one 2003 operation, says a security consultant at ZIC, fully 5,000 officers were deployed. (ZIC no longer takes on cigarette cases, according to the consultant, because the risks have become too great.)

In the 1990s, Chinese counterfeiters relied heavily on Macao, Taiwan, and Hong Kong for technical expertise, as well as high-quality packaging. These days, though, China’s counterfeiters source the majority of their supplies from the mainland: tobacco from Yunnan province in the west, packaging from Dongguan and Shantou in nearby Guangdong province, and cast-off machines bought online from underground manufacturers or recently shuttered state facilities. (Over the past decade, China’s legal cigarette industry has been consolidated, with the number of factories shrinking from 185 to 31 since 2001.) Counterfeiters have not only acquired the technology to mimic holograms used to distinguish real packs, but also the rounded-corner packaging the tobacco industry has introduced in recent years.

imageYunxiao’s cigarette counterfeiters are well-armed and well-protected; in some raids, police have had to blast through concrete bunkers to find the machines.And as manufacturing technology has improved, so, too, has the speed with which counterfeiters respond to shifting markets. This December, when Irish authorities seized a shipment of 20 million counterfeit cigarettes, they found the made-in-China packs bore exact replicas of Ireland’s latest tax stamps, which had been in circulation only a few months.

With the advent of the Internet, counterfeiters have become more brazen as well. Many openly court clients through online storefronts, touting quality guarantees and their equipment’s international caliber. One Yunxiao operation, established in 1993, assures customers of its experience exporting to Asia and Africa, and says it maintains its own tobacco leaf fields in Laos. The company — which churns out some 80 million cigarettes a week—promises a six-day manufacturing turnaround, door-to-door delivery for certain overseas clients, and impeccable customer service.

The tone is reassuring and gently instructive. For tentative buyers, the owners guarantee that for the U.S. in particular, it’s a “profit business.” Reads their website: “We strive to build and maintain a total honesty management culture, and will appreciate the chance to do business with you.”

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