It is always challenging to know the exact size of the illicit cigarette trade. To start, the covert nature of the problem makes it difficult to measure. Governments often obtain information about the scope of illicit trade from their customs agencies. Those agencies, however, generally do not have a full overview of the problem, as they are typically focused on the illicit cigarettes seized at their borders only (in other words, they’re not really considering the proportion of illicit cigarettes in the total market). Even worse, some governments get their information from the tobacco industry, which has a strong incentive to blow the problem out of proportion and scare governments into thinking that any new tobacco control regulation will lead to significant hikes in illicit trade in tobacco products. Few countries run their own independent and comprehensive analysis of the illicit tobacco market.

In countries that face significant challenges of illicit trade in tobacco products, a successful implementation of tobacco control policies and, especially, tax policies requires rigorous investigation of the illicit trade. The problem cannot be tackled if it is not well-understood. Countries that are party to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit trade in Tobacco Products, the international treaty intended to tackle the illicit trade in tobacco products globally, agreed that research on many aspects of illicit trade, such as the geographical origin of the illicit packs, is necessary. Those countries also agreed to exchange the results of that research on a regular basis. So, the demand for this kind of analysis will only grow.

Today, the Tobacconomics team at the University of Illinois at Chicago published “A Toolkit on Measuring Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products”. The toolkit is intended to help researchers and governments examine the illicit trade in tobacco product in a systematic and scientific manner. It provides step-by-step technical guidance on applying the two most commonly used approaches in estimating illicit trade: first, estimating illicit trade using primary data collection through physical pack collections and smoker surveys; and second, estimating illicit trade using secondary data through “gap” analysis. The toolkit was published in collaboration between the Tobacconomics and American Cancer Society research teams and involved foremost experts in the field. The document can be downloaded here.

Tobacconomics is hosted a webinar on this Toolkit on October 7, 2020. We post the video recording of the webinar below