Some of the brands seized are Indonesian made

Contraband cigarettes that do not carry statutory health warning scrolls on their packet covers are being increasingly retailed on the streets in Kerala, chiefly in the north, at a far lower price than prohibitively taxed Indian manufactured ones.

The State government had hiked the tax on cigarettes this financial year. For the past two years, smuggling of foreign-made cigarettes from the Gulf into Kerala has increased, primarily because of the marked difference in tax rates.

In the past financial year, Customs and Central Excise Department officials in Kochi airport alone confiscated contraband cigarettes valued at more than Rs.20 lakh. They detained 19 persons, most of them professional carriers, who had concealed the stuff in their check-in baggage.

The seizures in Kochi account only for a fraction of the quantity of contraband cigarettes smuggled into the country from the Gulf.

Little known brands

Assistant Commissioner, Customs, Anil Kumar said the cigarettes seized in Kochi were little known brands, which were now steadily gaining ground in markets in north Kerala, and predominantly, Maharashtra.

Some of the contraband brands, such as “Gudang Garam and International Filter Kretek,” are Indonesian made.

The products come in a range of flavours. The smugglers procure the product for less than Rs.300 a carton (20 packets) in the Gulf and sell it to black-marketers in Kerala and Mangalore in Karnataka for not less than Rs.1,000. Most of the consignments seized in Kochi were bound for Mumbai via middlemen in Mangalore.

“Door-to-door,” an unauthorised courier system widely relied on by Gulf-based migrant workers to send packages home at less than air-freight rates, is also being used to smuggle contraband cigarettes into the country in trade quantities.

The air-cargo consignments are imported under the guise of used household goods of Indian citizens returning home from their workplace abroad.

In Kochi, Customs enforcers said that all such consignments were now “100 per cent examined” to prevent smuggling.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also alerted the Customs of the inflow and sale of contraband tobacco products, which did not carry statutory health warning signs, including pictorial depiction of the health hazards involved.

The growing domestic sale of contraband cigarettes threatened to eat into the Central and State tax revenues, officials said.