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New law requires 24-hour stay before tobacco can cross border

Finnish law dictates that residents are allowed to bring 200 cigarettes for personal use into the country from Russia after a visit. Starting in mid-August, those that wish to legally do so will also be required to show that they have spent at least 24 hours in the country. The change has created a new cottage industry just over the border, as ads offering cheap accommodation in the Russian Republic of Karelia have already been spotted in the media.

Savukkeita Venäjältä.
Image: Tanja Perkkiö / Yle

A change to Finnish law means that smokers who are used to storing up on cheap cigarettes from Russia will soon be required to stay 24 hours in the country before bringing them into Finland legally.

The new development has already given rise to a new short-term lodging market. One magazine ad offers a bed in Russia’s Karelia republic for just 15 euros per night.

But just how many nicotine addicts will be willing to give up 24 hours of their time to save on tobacco products remains to be seen. Seppo Pehkonen from eastern Joensuu doesn’t plan to.

“I normally travel there once a week and bring back cigarettes because I smoke. I don’t plan to spend the night in the future; I’ll buy smokes from my friends instead. A lot of people smoke and it’s expensive. Wages are down as it is. With this change, the Finnish State will only encourage smuggling,” he says.

Will it lead to more smuggling?

Erkki Multamäki, Senior Inspector of Customs at the Niirala border crossing in southeast Finland affirms Pehkonen’s suspicions.

“Small-time smuggling will rise. People tend to pop over the border on the weekend and try to take four or five packs along with the sanctioned carton because they don’t get over to buy cigarettes often. But not everyone is willing to spend the night, especially people with jobs that have been making these quick trips to stock up,” he says.

At the moment, there is very little tobacco smuggling from Russia into Finland, only about 100 cartons a month are seized. The amount of tobacco products that are imported legally for personal use, on the other hand, is sizable indeed. The Niirala customs office alone sees cigarette traffic that translates into 32 million euros in lost tax revenue.

Know your limits

Finnish residents travelling to and from Russia should be aware of what can be brought into and out of the country legally. The current limit is a carton of 200 cigarettes for personal or family use, or to give as a gift. Carrying cigarettes over the border must also be an irregular practice, in other words, not an everyday occurrence.

“There are some who try to claim they smoke 10 packs a day,” says Multamäki.

Reselling is tax evasion

It is common knowledge on the eastern border that some of the cigarettes brought into the country over the border are then resold on the black market in Finland. The temptation is great because of the potentially lucrative monetary payoff, even if it is classified as minor tax evasion.

“If an entire carton costs 14 euros next door and just one packet costs between 5 to 6 euros here, it is pretty easy to finance your trip by selling the cigarettes – even at a small profit – if you don’t smoke,” says Multamäki.

Towards a smokeless future?

Finland’s stricter Tobacco Act is intended to discourage young people from starting to use tobacco products and protect non-smoking people from exposure to tobacco smoke.

While smokeless tobacco products like snus are already prohibited, the new law also bans chewing tobacco, powdered snuff, and the remote sales of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes on the internet, for example. The new law also makes it easier for housing companies to ban balcony smoking if it can be shown to be a nuisance.

Lawmakers say in the amendment that the overall goal of the legislation is to end the use of tobacco and nicotine products in Finland completely by the year 2030.

An incentive to quit

Punkaharju residents Alexandre and Svetlana Andreev don’t buy cigarettes on their travels back and forth to Russia. They think the new law is a step in the right direction.

“Maybe this will be the encouragement people who haven’t been able to quit otherwise need. We don’t bring tobacco products back with us. It’s normal that the law is becoming stricter. In the past, we would buy some cigarettes as a gift for our neighbour, but now we encourage him to quit,” they said.

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