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Finnish customs seize record quantity of snus

Smuggling the tobacco product has grown into an increasingly organised criminal activity worth millions of euros.

satoja nuuskatorneja tullin varastossa
Packaged tins of snus in Customs storage. Image: Tulli
Yle News

New Customs statistics (siirryt toiseen palveluun) show a thriving black market in snus and a huge increase in smuggling. In 2011, customs seized just over 30 kilos of snus, last year it was more than 9 000 kilos.

Snus smuggling has become more professional over the years. It is an oral tobacco product, normally placed under a users' upper or lower lip. Sales of snus was banned by the EU, but Sweden was permitted to continue producing and marketing it. It was formally banned in Finland in 1995.

"It is certainly no longer an amateur activity. Tens of millions of euros are at stake in the snus smuggling business," Hannu Sinkkonen, Director of Control at Finnish Customs told Yle.

Traditionally, snus is imported via the western border, but also by ship. Up to 1,000 kilos at a time, according to Sinkkonen.

That smuggling has become a more orchestrated crime has also been noticed at the western border.

"In the last two or three years, small time businesses have already been the minority. Snus is distributed where there are a lot of users. There are all kinds of brokers and bigger players," says Tuomo Kunnari, head of the Tornio Customs Investigation Unit.

Finland's western border is over 500 kilometres long. Tighter border controls due to Covid restrictions led smugglers to seek routes past customs posts.

Snus was brought across the river in boats in summer and on snowmobiles in winter. Kunnari says that customs were able to seize these snus products quite successfully.

Statistics Finland estimates that around 10 percent of smuggled snus is actually seized by Customs authorities. This calculation suggests that dozens of tonnes of smuggled snus enters Finland undetected, Sinkkonen said.

Tullin valvontajohtaja Hannu Sinkkonen Tullin pihalla Tampereen Sarankulmassa
Hannu Sinkkonen, Director of Control at Finnish Customs. Image: Mari Vesanummi / Yle

Snus smuggling is lucrative

Criminals have caught on that smuggling snus is profitable. The risk of getting caught is low and the sentences are reasonably light.

Those found guilty of illegally import snus face a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. However, potential legal consequences are light compared to drug smuggling laws, which sometimes exceed 10 years, which has annoyed some Customs authorities.

"The profits from snus smuggling are on a par with drug smuggling, but the penalties are not. The law completely lacks a sentence for aggravated smuggling that would act as a deterrent," said Sinkkonen.

He said that smuggling snus can result in major tax penalties, but that those do not deter professional criminals. They have handled it in ways where there are parties within the smuggling business that assume the tax debt.

For the amateur smuggler, paying such tax fines can be a rude awakening. A few kilos of smuggled snus can result in a fine of thousands of euros in addition to a criminal record.

Sinkkonen said that young smugglers, in particular, may not understand the risk they take in terms of taxes, as such fines can end up burdening them for a long time.

Haparanda an oasis for Finnish snus smugglers

There are several snus shops in Sweden, along the border in Haparanda, near Tornio, Finland. It is clear that in a municipality of less than 10,000 resident, these shops do not only serve the local population.

"In accordance with the Accession Treaty, Sweden should make every effort to prevent snus from being exported to other EU countries. As far as the shops in Haparanda are concerned, sales are targeted towards Finns and snus is probably also sold in euros," said Sinkkonen.

Nuuskaoutletin myymälän rakennus Haaparannalla.
Snus outlet shop in Haparanda, Sweden. Image: Juuso Stoor / Yle

Finnish snus users finance not only Swedish snus manufacturers but also the Swedish state and, for example, the municipality of Haparanda. Sweden collects the taxes and Finland suffers the health damage and the increased problems caused by smuggling, according to Sinkkonen.

In Finland, a parliamentary initiative and a citizens' initiatives have called for the return of snus sales in Finland. Supporters of such a move say it would help retrieve some of the tax benefits to Finland while negatively impacting smuggling of the product. Strong opposition from health authorities has prevented sales, at least for the time being. Guidance may also be needed from the EU, as it granted Sweden an exception for its snus trade.

Snus is legal

It is legal to use snus in Finland, and you can import a kilo at a time for personal use. It is possible that the legality of use also makes it seem more acceptable to buy snus from the black market.

The increase in snus use is also due to strict restrictions on smoking tobacco. A snus user in Hämeenlinna says that this was one of the reasons for his switching to snus, although he considers the health benefits even more important.

"Snus can be used while driving or in public places, such as restaurants, without causing passive smoking problems for others. The main reason why I switched to snus was that I found it less harmful than tobacco. At least I don't inhale carbon monoxide into my lungs."

However, with no desire to be a public advocate of snus, the Hämeenlinna man who spoke to Yle did not want his identity revealed.

Finnish health authorities consider snus to be very harmful and do not want to present it publicly as a better alternative to smoking tobacco.

Finland has set a target of phasing out all tobacco and nicotine products by 2030.

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