A Study on Economic Causes of Smuggling

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Lithuanian Free Market Institute

A Study on Economic Causes of Smuggling

Vilnius 2004




Smuggling and its economic causes

Underlying factors of smuggling



The rationale and disadvantages of regulation

Regulation of tobacco, alcohol and oil industries

Market regulation through excise taxation: an overview and problems

Market regulation through excise taxes: an overview and problems

Problems of applying excise taxes

Problems of harmonization of excise taxation in the EU




Strategies for combating smuggling are usually designed to remove the symptoms of
smuggling. Efforts are focused on identifying weaknesses of financing state
institutions that are responsible for fighting smuggling or weaknesses in border
control or oversight of corporate finances. Economic incentives for smuggling are not
analysed. Economic causes of smuggling are considered to be unshakable axioms, so
that the implications and the elimination of the economic causes are not even

The purpose of this study is to analyse economic causes and preconditions of
smuggling and to offer proposals for eliminating the m. This study looks at market
forces behind smuggling and identifies and explores economic causes and
preconditions of smuggling. Economic policy measures that would help to eliminate
the causes and preconditions of smuggling are proposed.

Lithuania’s border with Belarus and the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation
is the external border of the European Union (EU). It makes up 902 km of the EU
total external land border. The movement of goods that are taken across the EU
external border inside the EU is much freer, therefore the security of the EU external
borders is very important for those EU member states which administer them.
Lithuania is not only a transit country or a country where goods are “unloaded.” In
Lithuania organized criminal groups are particularly active, while corrupt
relationships with government officials, politicians and customs officers are deeply

This study focuses on the economic causes of smuggling of the most popular
contraband goods. These are cigarettes, ethyl alcohol and alcohol products and fuel.
These goods were chosen on the basis of information about smuggling provided by
state institutions and the media in Lithuania.1

Another reason why cigarettes, ethyl alcohol and alcohol products and fuel are
analysed in this study is that these goods are subject to excise taxation. Excise tax
accounts for up to 70 percent of the final price of the goods in question. This makes
state regulation an important economic factor affecting equilibrium that market forces
create. Article 2 of the Law on Excise Duties states that excise duties are levied on
ethyl alcohol and alcohol drinks, finished tobacco products and energy products. The
categories of taxable commodities and minimum excise tax rates are set by the EU
law. 2

This study focuses on the smuggling of goods that are “normally” present in free and
lawful trade. It does not explore contraband goods which are not allowed to be traded
freely, such as firearms, ammunition, explosives, explosive and radioactive materials,
other strategic goods, and poisonous and highly efficacious, psychotropic and narcotic

1 According to press releases of the State Border Guard Service, 482,000 contraband cigarette packs
had been detained on the Lithuanian border by 18 June 2004. http://www.pasienis.lt/press/index.htm.
Data from press reports reviewed during the life of the project are used.
2 The EU directives which were used for approximating the procedure for levying excise taxes are
listed in Attachment I to the Law on Excise Duties.


substances. This is a relative choice because both firearms and various poisonous
substances can be traded legitimately. Smuggling of both of these commodity groups
shares one common trait, namely avoidance of existing rules. What matters in this
case is not rules that have certain economic implications but a possibility to be on the
market per se.

In this study smuggling is understood in accordance with the provisions of Article 199
of the Criminal Code and Article 210 of the Code of Violations of Administrative
Rights of the Republic of Lithuania. Smuggling is understood as the carriage of goods
for business purposes, not for personal consumption, through the state border in
breach of established customs procedures and irrespective of the value of the goods.
Some authors treat cross-border shopping, internet shopping and duty-free shopping
also as ways of carrying goods through the state border with the view to avoid ing
taxation, but such cases are not covered in this study.

The causes of smuggling are the incentives that motivate people to engage in
smuggling. Economic causes are understood as factors that determine the existence of
smuggling. Economic preconditions are understood as factors that create favourable
conditio ns for the economic causes of smuggling to manifest themselves.

It is a grounded belief that smuggling has a negative effect on the state and business.
Contraband goods compete with legitimate goods and reduce the profits of law-
abiding companies. They dodge taxes and lead to budget revenue losses. Some
contraband is carried by organized criminal groups who use their profits to finance
other activities. Smuggling incites corruption of state officials, customs and border
control officers and politicians. By making it possible to obtain goods on a completely
uncontrolled illegal market, smuggling also makes it impossible to limit the
accessibility of tobacco and alcohol products to underage persons. However,
smuggling has some advantages too: it allows people to obtain goods which they
could not afford otherwise. By providing a source of subsistence, smuggling helps
residents of the border regions of Lithuania and neighbouring countries solve their
social problems.

The study argues that the business of smuggling is aimed to flout detailed,
complicated and expensive regulations and that excise taxation drives up the prices of
goods. The study looks at these regulatory measures and offers an economic analysis
of the factors that affect smuggling. The purpose of this study is to identify, to
analyse, to assess, and to draw public and official attention to, economic causes of
smuggling and to emphasize them in developing effective anti-smuggling policies.

Chapter 1 of the study analyses general economic causes of smuggling and factors
affecting them. Chapter 2 looks at the factors that contribute to the smuggling of the
most popular contraband goods. The first part of Chapter 2 explores reasons for, and
weaknesses of, state regulation of the markets under analysis. The second part
discusses specific policies of non-tax market regulation. The third part presents data
on the excise taxes in the European Union, Lithuania and neighbouring countries and
evaluates the general problems of applying excise taxes and harmonizing them in the
European Union. Conclusions and recommendations are offered at the end of the



In this chapter smuggling is treated as a market phenomenon affected by supply and
demand. The contraband market functions alongside the legal market. The paths of
buyers and sellers cross: buyers decide which goods to buy, while sellers look for
ways to sell goods. In addition to the primary forces of supply and demand,
smuggling is affected by other ge neral factors. Some of them have a direct impact on
goods and prices (excise duties, trade restrictions and customs duties), others provide
additional incentives for underground activity (high taxes or strict employment
regulations), while yet others facilitate smuggling (corruption). Identifying and
analysing general causes of smuggling and its underlying factors are useful in general
and in the prevention of smuggling of specific goods and investigation of the shadow
economy in particular.

Smuggling and Its Economic Causes

Economic causes of smuggling are understood as economic factors that give rise to
smuggling. A specific act of smuggling is a consequence of these causes.

Smuggling is understood as the carriage of goods for business purposes, not for
personal consumption, through the state border in breach of established customs
procedures and irrespective of the value of the carried goods. Smuggling is a
conscious act.3 Economic causes of smuggling are factors that motivate people to
engage in smuggling. These factors are understood individually, so individual
perceptions of these factors differ. The causes of smuggling stem from a person’s
desire to satisfy his or her needs. People who use illicit goods satisfy their needs to
obtain the goods they desire, while those who supply smuggled goods seek to satisfy
their income needs.

Demand is determined by consumers’ desire to obtain goods. The demand for cheaper
goods is bigger than that for more expensive ones. A consumer wants a good that will
satisfy his or her needs at the lowest price possible. In order to satisfy their needs
consumers always have to choose between their various needs and between various
goods that can be used to satisfy these needs. Consumers react to changes in prices
and make decisions where to spend the resources they possess. Consumers have
limited resources, so when the price of a good goes up, they have several alternatives:
to buy the same but more expensive good, to forego this good and the needs it helps to
satisfy or to switch from more expensive to cheaper supplies. Cheaper goods of the
same kind can be legitimate (cheaper brands of cigarettes or alcohol products) and
illegal, including home- made goods (moonshine, home- made spirits, etc.) or
smuggled goods. An opinion poll conducted by LFMI confirms that consumers
purchase goods that are acceptable for them in terms of price and quality. It also
shows that people tolerate smuggled goods and illicit consumption. According to the
opinion poll, more than half of those polled (61 percent) completely justify or tend to
justify consumption of smuggled supplies.

3 Admittedly, carriers of contraband are not necessarily aware of the actual content of the freight they
are carrying, therefore the treatment of smuggling as a conscious act is not absolute.


Satisfying consumers’ demand is an activity which market participants undertake in
order to satisfy their own income needs. The supply of goods reflects a response to the
demand for goods. As was mentioned above, consumers desire goods of acceptable
quality at the lowest possible price, and the demand for such goods is bigger as a rule.
The demand for cheaper goods is not necessarily satisfied: no players on the market
may happen to agree to exchange the commodity they possess at the price offered by
the buyer. The seller has a possibility to satisfy the demand for cheaper goods by
offering cheaper supplies of the same kind and by reducing the costs required to
supply the se goods. Costs inflicted by state regulations and taxes constitute a part of
the price struc ture. In order to reduce the costs and to operate legitimately, traders
seek to cut down the costs that are not related to state regulations, i.e. the costs of raw
materials, labour force, management, etc. Costs can also be lowered by refusing to
comply with the rules established by the state, i.e. by producing goods that do not
comply with existing quality requirements, by paying “envelop” wages or by giving
bribes to regulators, etc.

Smuggling is an activity that is used to earn income from carrying goods through the
state border in violation of existing rules. Smugglers seek to generate income by
avoiding state control and regulations and related costs.

A number of players are engaged in smuggling. Their motives, profits, legal status
and responsibilities differ. Organized criminal groups, which are widely believed to
stand behind smuggling and to seek maximizing their profits and financ ing other
criminal activities, benefit from smuggling the most. Carriers of contraband can also
be its organizers. As the opinion poll conducted by LFMI shows, a third of those
polled see small- scale smuggling as an opportunity for people to earn income.
Carriers of contraband can be hired by those who organize smuggling and can be
related to them through some kind of labour relationships: they perform specific tasks
and are remunerated for the accomplishment of these tasks. In response to recent
amendments of the Criminal Code, carriers of contraband tend to carry goods not in
excess of 250 times the minimum subsistence level so as to avoid criminal
prosecution for smuggling. Distributors are usually private individuals, in fact salaried
employees, who compete both over “employment” and the venue of sales and buyers.
Customs officers or state border control officers who participate in smuggling can be
both organizers of smuggling and aids for smugglers. Top politicians can also take
part in smuggling by exerting influence on important, strategic policy decisions in
favour of smuggling.4

Smuggling is aimed to avoid:
ü Control in the case when carried goods do not comply with existing quality or
safety requirements. For example, medicines from Russia or Belarus used to
be imported legitimately prior to Lithuania’s membership of the European
Union. However, upon the coming into effect of the EU norms of the quality
of medicines, these products no longer meet the existing requirements in the
EU and are smuggled into the country.

4 On 15 July 2004 the Respublika daily published an article, “Pareigunus siutinantis istatymas –
kontrabandininku rojus,” about attempts of contraband organizers to have the provisions of the
Criminal Code prescribing criminal responsibility for smuggling softened.


ü Control in the case when certain goods are prohibited. This refers to guns,
firearms, explosives, radioactive materials and psychotropic and narcotic
ü Tax-related costs. Smuggled goods evade customs duties, excise taxes and
value added tax.
ü Regulation-related costs. In most cases smuggled goods do not appear in the
legal business environment,5 therefore smuggling of, and illegal trade in, these
goods dodge taxes and costs that are inflicted by employment regulations,
costs related to business licensing and costs inflicted by commodity-specific
ü Customs-related costs. Customs procedures are costly because of both
complicated customs regulations and changing rules of freight inspections.
ü Regulations of intellectual ownership protection. Some categorie s of
contraband violate intellectual property rights. This refers to bootleg audio and
video records and fabricated industrial goods. Once smuggled, they are thrown
onto the black market, the only place they can be sold.

The meaning of the word contraband confirms its origin, which is acting against
rules. Contraband, or smuggling, is the carriage of goods through the state border and
their supply on the market by violating and dodging established rules. Taxes and
regulations are flouted in order to avoid the costs they inflict and to supply illicit
goods that are in high demand.

Smugglers can satisfy the demand for cheaper goods because in other countries,
separated by state borders, prices are lower. Distance considerations and legal
restrictions that are applicable to the crossing of the state border prevent consumers
from buying cheaper goods on these markets themselves. However, arithmetic price
differences between countries should not be regarded as the driving force of
smuggling. For example, retail selling prices can be similar on different markets, but
tax evasion makes smuggled goods cheaper. So smugglers calculate and orient
themselves to the price that will form once goods are smuggled into the market of
destination. This price includes all costs that are related to the buying and carrying of
the smuggled good. Given that every smuggled commodity competes not only with
legal products but also with other smuggled goods, smugglers make an estimation of
the future market price of the ir supplies both on the legal and illegal markets.

In most cases contraband is physically taken across the state border. The most popular
way of smuggling is to hide goods from customs control. 6 In 2003 a total of 58
criminal proceedings were instituted for this kind of violation. Document
counterfeiting (15 cases) and lowering the value of goods at customs (two cases) are
also used as means of smuggling. The carriage of goods through the state border is
only a way to flout government control and regulation. The practice of leaving goods
on the market where they are produced but avoiding regulations and taxes is an

5 According to an opinion poll conducted by LFMI, only 3.2 percent of those polled think that
smuggled goods are bought in shops and kiosks. A total of 47.4 percent of the respondents think that
illicit goods are purchased in the marketplace, while 45.9 percent say they are bought from private
6 Data fro m a presentation “Smuggling and Measures of Controlling it in Lithuania. Overview and
Assessment” delivered by a representative of the Customs Department at LFMI’s conference
“Economic Causes of Smuggling. Challenges for the New EU.”


illustration of this. For example, cigarettes that are produced in Great Britain and
intended for export are taken out of the country but do not reach the export market:
they are smuggled back to Great Britain. The same happens when only freight
documents are “exported” abroad, while the contents do not leave the exporting (and
the end- use) market. Paradoxically, customs control and bureaucratic procedures
make this kind of violations possible as smuggled goods “get lost” amidst extensive
regulations. One can only guess what other ways of smuggling are used. Government
agencies have not disclosed, nor statistics captured, the “best” of them yet.

Smuggling is aimed to dodge competition that legal products present. The price of
goods that are traded on the legitimate market reflects taxes and other costs of
legitimate business, while smuggled goods become cheaper through avoidance of
these costs. Smugglers compete among themselves too. This illegitimate business is
not protected by law, so smugglers also have to deal on their own with “business”
conflicts that are outside the law.

Underlying factors

A variety of factors affects the demand for, and supply of, smuggled goods. These
factors create conditions for economic causes of contraband to manifest themselves.
The impact that these factors have on the motives of smuggling differs depending on
the type of smuggled goods. It depends on the extent to which specific markets are
regulated, i.e. whether given commodities are subject to excise tax or customs duties
or other regulations, etc. This part of the study analyses the main factors of
smuggling, specifically a heavy tax burden, extensive legal regulation, the
unpredictable, extensive and burdensome system of business licensing and permits,
low quality of public services, strict employment regulations, entrenched corruption,
complicated customs procedures, a low living standard in neighbouring countries,
import formalities and non-tariff import regulations, organized crime and the
infrastructure of contraband.

A heavy tax burden

The tax burden creates strong incentives to avoid legitimate business. Mandatory
social security contributions make up 34 percent of the wage bill. Employment
earnings are taxed at 33 percent, while other types of income are subject to a 15-
percent tax. Sole proprietors pay 15 percent on their profits and another 15 percent on
that part of income which they use for their own needs. A pollution tax on packages,
enforced from the beginning of 2003, increased the tax burden. Excise taxes are
growing rapidly due to Lithuania’s obligations to achieve the minimum EU level. The
excise tax on tobacco is set to increase 156 percent by 2009. The excise tax on liquid
gas has been raised by 20 percent in 2004. In 2003 the value added tax was levied on
certain goods that previously had been exempt from taxation. Frequent changes of tax
laws, numerous tax exemptions and a complicated tax collection system increase the
indirect tax burden and lead to the expansion of the shadow economy. EU member
states do not impose any customs duties or similar levies on the Single Market. The
EU applies uniform customs duties to trade with third countries. Prior to membership
of the EU Lithuania levied on average lower customs duties on trade with third
countries, especially on industrial commodities, than the EU.


Excise taxes are directly reflected in prices. They increase the proportion of
regulation-related costs in the final price. Excise tax and value added tax account for
60 percent of the retail selling price of tobacco products and up to 70 percent of the
retail selling price of alcohol products. Given that illicit goods avoid tax-related costs,
price increases that these factors cause encourage smuggling.

Abundant and unpredictable legal regulation

A complicated, inconsistent and unpredictable business environment is one of the
causes of the shadow economy. Starting up a business (registration and licensing),
employment relationships and the sale of goods are subject to special regulation. More
than 70 government agencies are in charge of controlling business compliance with
regulations. Laws and secondary legislation are imprecise, misleading, frequently
changing and even retrospective. Regulations are unsystematic and dispersed among
many legal acts. Upcoming new regulations are not communicated to the business
community in advance. In many cases new regulations come as a surprise. This
particularly hurts small and medium- sized business which lacks capacities to keep up
with, and adjust to, a constantly changing legal environment. A regulatory practice
like this has evolved because of a lack of horizontal coordination, information and
administrative capacities in state institutions, overlapping functions and insufficient
openness of state institutions, a lack of related public control and inadequate attitudes
towards entrepreneurs and citizens as clients and recipients of public services. This
increases uncertainty of business and diminish possibilities to plan business and adjust
to future changes. Increased uncertainty and limited possibilities reduce incentives for
legitimate business and create preconditions for smuggling.

An extensive and cumbersome system of business licensing and permits

The business community place business licensing and the issue of certificates and
other business permits among the most serious barriers to doing business. Licenses are
applied to more than 30 business activities, while many other types of business
require other state permissions which go under different names. Licensing rules lack
clarity and licensing procedures are complicated and lengthy. Various agreements,
documents, inspection acts, permits, certificates and authorizations have to be
submitted in order to obtain a business license. Official and unofficial payments for
these documents inflict a heavy burden on starting entrepreneurs. State institutions
responsible for issuing licenses have much discretion in applying additional
requirements. In many cases companies are required to submit proof that they are
ready not only to conduct a certain type of business activity but also to produce a
certain type of product. Licensing institutions are left with much leeway to evaluate
documentation and to adopt decisions regarding adherence to existing requirements
and the issue of licenses. These procedures require large starting capital. They
increase the dependence of business on decisions of government agencies and hinder
the planning of, and adjustment to, future changes. This reduces incentives to engage
in legitimate business and creates preconditions for smuggling.

Low quality of public services

Inadequate public services, i.e. the ensuring of business safety and an effective
mechanism of contract fulfilment in court and through bailiffs, are another cause of


smuggling given that law-abiding businesses, whose advantage is to use available
state services, do not take advantage of them. This reduces the attractiveness of
legitimate business and motivates illegal undertakings to stay informal.

Strict employment regulations

Laws regulate employment relationships in great detail. Restrictions applicable to
part-time employment and fixed-term employment plus a lack of tradition and
incentives to use flexible forms of employment reduce the flexibility of the labour
market. Firing is difficult and costly, especially in large enterprises. This makes hiring
risky. Work hours are regulated, overtime is restricted and mandatory remuneration
for overtime is high. This explains attractiveness of the shadow economy as being
informal makes it possible to avoid detailed, costly and complicated employment
regulations and increases the “benefits” of smuggling.

A high level of corruption caused by abundant regulation and wide authority of state

Courts, customs offices, the traffic police, tax inspections, institutions issuing
business licenses and other permits and public procurement executives are the most
susceptible to corruption. The extensive regulatory system is particularly vulnerable.
Protracted decision- making regarding the issue of business permits and licenses is a
serious concern. Regulatory agencies exercise wide discretionary powers. Various
controlling institutions have a right to inspect how companies adhere to employment,
hygiene and fire prevention regulations. They are authorised to impose large fines and
penalties without instituting court proceedings. Under such circumstances business
people are forced to make unofficial payments in order to have state officials adopt
favourable and fast decisions. Business people bear large costs of both implementing
official requirements and unofficial purchases. Research into the causes of corruption
conducted by LFMI shows that eliminating excessive restrictions and unjustified
exemptions, reducing the opportunities for discretionary actions that public servants
exercise and simplifying administrative procedures would be the most effective ways
to counter corruption. A high level of corruption plus related business uncertainty and
costs reduce incentives of legitimate business. On the other hand, corruption as we
know it today stimulates smuggling by “communicating” to those interested that, with
the aid of corrupt officials, illicit business is possible.

Complicated customs procedures

Despite the enforcement of a new customs code, customs procedures create much
difficulty for legitimate business and foreign trade. The rights of importers and
exporters are not properly secured. Customs valuation procedures, the filling of
customs documents, customs inspections and the procedures for payment of customs
duties are frequently unclear and unjustified. Customs officials exercise wide
decision- making authority. This creates opportunity for abuse of official power. For
example, the provision of information to a customs official that does not meet
legislative requirements is prosecuted in Lithuania. A petty or technical problem, even
if recognized by a carrier, may not be corrected and the carrier may not be relieved of