Bab Al-Shaareyah is a historic Cairo neighbourhood dating back to the Ayyubid dynasty of Saladin. The neighbourhood housed two of Cairo’s old gates; one was named after the neighbourhood and the other is called Bab El-Bahr. Today, Bab El-Bahr is the biggest street market in the neighbourhood, where vendors sell a diverse range of products from poultry, vegetables and detergents to tobacco.
Bab El-Bahr’s street market stretches for over a kilometre, with alleyways crisscrossing the street providing parking spots for motorcycles and carts used to transfer merchandise and products.
At the middle of the market, vendors selling peculiar cigarette packages start to appear off the sides of the street. The further you walk, the more vendors you find up until you reach what seems to be a wholesale cigarette market.
Under a number of improvised tents, towers of cigarette packages are displayed on nearly every street corner, adorned with placards of prices.
Although those packages of cigarettes may look familiar, a closer look shows that their brands are unknown. These are smuggled cigarettes, and Bab El-Bahr street market is their home.
Even during the holy month of Ramadan (during which Muslims abstain from various forms of consumption, including smoking), the hustle and bustle of Bab El-Bahr’s smuggled cigarettes market seemed almost at normal levels. Eager customers walk up and down the different shops, checking out and even haggling over the already cheap prices, regardless of the price placards.
Karim, a 15-year-old shopkeeper, explains the difference in the appearance and features between the smuggled cigarettes and original ones (whether they are imported or locally manufactured).
“There are signs that distinguish original cigarettes from counterfeit and smuggled ones. First, the colour of the counterfeit packages is slightly lighter. For example, this counterfeit Marlboro package is red; the original package that you would buy from a supermarket is dark red. Second, there is always this warning against smoking on original cigarette packs, on the counterfeit and smuggled ones you find none.”
Adel, another shopkeeper, adds: “With some good counterfeit packs you may find the warning, but the details about where the cigarette is coming from would be missing.”
According to several vendors, the smuggled cigarettes available on the market at the moment come from China and have distinguished brands of their own, such as Capital, Pine, L&J, Malimbo and Golden Eagle. These also come in such flavours as apple, strawberry and chocolate. Other times they are a counterfeit of well-known foreign brands such as Marlboro and American Legend.
Additionally some shops sell counterfeit packages that bear the seal of the duty free market in order to appeal to customers. However, while the seal may coat the package from the outside, the inside would lack transparent plastic covers for the separate packs.
Indeed, whatever the fault, the result is the same: smuggled or counterfeit cigarettes are not difficult to identify under close enough scrutiny.
Apart from the outer features, when it comes to smoking smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes the difference is palpable: they taste and smell different.
Mohamed, a customer shopping for cigarettes, has been buying smuggled cigarettes for a long time. He knows the alleyways of the cigarette market by heart and knows where to find Chinese brands, but also the well-known imported brands for cheaper prices.
“The Chinese brands are the worst,” he says. “They taste bad, but their price is light on the pocket. However, you can find here [at Bab El-Bahr] a few vendors who sell imported brands for less and these brands would taste better.”
Vendors agree with Mohamed that people give up taste for price. Am Ahmed, the owner of a kiosk near the Bab El-Bahr street market, sells snacks, chips and smuggled cigarettes that he buys from the cigarettes wholesale market at Bab el-Bahr. He sells the Chinese cigarette packs like Pine, L&J and others for EGP 3.5, which is one third of the price of the original cigarettes pack, which could reach up to EGP 12.
At the cigarette wholesale market, packages containing ten packs range from EGP 16 to 48, while the price of a package of ten of the local brands ranges from EGP 50 to 70, and foreign brands reach up to EGP 120. This makes the price of smuggled cigarettes extremely attractive to consumers, many of whom consume local brands along with smuggled ones to make up for taste while also avoiding extra expenses.
Health takes the hit
Amid the phenomenon, health appears to be off the radar of consumers and vendors alike. Wael Safwat, a physician and regional tobacco control consultant, explains how smoking in general affects the health of the smoker.
“Smoking affects the smoker and the people around him or her,” he explains. “All tissues and organs of the smoker’s body are impacted because a lack of oxygen transpires in all the cells of the body as result of the consumption of nicotine and many other harmful materials in tobacco. The lack of oxygen makes the cell suffocate and lead them to age earlier than their normal cycle.”
Safwat adds that smoking also leads to coronary artery diseases due to how nicotine narrows the coronary blood vessels. Over the long-term, the malfunctioning of the blood circulation might lead to clotting or heart strokes.
“The most important risk is the disposition towards forming cancerous cells, which increases with smoking,” he adds.
“Tobacco in general has around 4,000 chemicals 47 of them are cancerous. Tobacco companies add many chemicals to make tobacco more appealing to consumers, among them nicotine. It makes cigarettes more addictive because it helps the brain produce endorphins, leading to a more relaxing and pleasurable state,” he said.
According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) carried out by the World Health Organisation in Egypt in 2009: “among adults 15 years or older, 19.4% were current tobacco smokers, representing 9.7 million Egyptians; men (37.7%) were more likely than women (0.5%) to smoke tobacco.” Additionally, the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) also conducted in 2009, shows that 8.9% of youths from 13-15 years old currently smoke cigarettes.
The hazards of smoking, however, quadruple with smuggled cigarettes simply because the components used in manufacturing the cigarettes come from unknown sources. A recent study by the National Research Centre (NRC) examined the components of sample of smuggled cigarette brands in Egypt and found out that 24 unknown chemical compounds.
NRC declared that that one component could “lead to irregularities in cell division, which increases the possibility of developing malignancy” while another causes “harmful effects to the nervous system.”
Between a rock and hard place
In 2010, the Egyptian government levied new taxes on locally manufactured cigarettes, causing their prices to hike. After the revolution there was a huge surge in the smuggled cigarettes market, largely due to the lack of border security.
The surge, however, was amplified when the government increased the taxes on tobacco products, causing prices of cigarettes to rise by over 70%.
Taxes were levied on cigarettes in an effort to increase revenues for the government, as well as to indirectly discourage consumption. However, given the inelastic nature of the demand for cigarettes, increasing taxes in Egypt backfired, as it only served to drive consumers towards the cheaper, tax-free smuggled alternative. This in turn brought on significant financial losses to the government.
The new supply of smuggled brands flooding the Egyptian market has come mainly from China, but also from the United Arab Emirates and Southeast Asia. A 2012 study by British American Tobacco (one of the biggest tobacco manufacturers in Egypt) announced that smuggled cigarettes constitute 20% of the cigarette market as of March 2012, compared to 0.03% at the end of 2010. The Egyptian government loses about EGP 4bn annually as a result of the smuggling
“I think all efforts should be directed toward hindering the phenomenon of smuggled cigarettes, because right now it exacerbates the problem of smoking and threatens public health,” says Safwat.
According to the state-owned Al-Ahram, the government mandated all local manufacturers to stamp their products starting June of the current year as a measure to identify smuggled products.
Perhaps the most baffling illustration of the situation is the calm atmosphere at Bab El-Bahr, where, despite the illicit nature of their trade and the police checkpoint only 500 metres away, the vendors of smuggled cigarettes carry out their business safely and completely undisturbed. Under this atmosphere, the illegal trade of smuggled cigarettes, no matter how harmful to the populace, will continue to thrive.
Names have been changed to protect identities