If you are looking for a bargain, Rio’s Centro Uruguaiana is the place to be. Normally expensive brand-name sneakers, faux designer purses and wristwatches sell at rock-bottom prices—as do cigarettes.
After examining the packages from different angles, he concludes they are “probably” genuine.
The packs carry the mandatory health warnings depicting shriveled lungs and sickly babies and are fitted with official-looking tax stamps.
The only way to be sure, says Letti, is by sending them off to a laboratory for analysis. But by the time a cigarette pack is opened, the damage has of course already been done.
The challenge facing legitimate cigarette manufacturers in Brazil is enormous. Illicit product accounts for a whopping 28.6 percent of the domestic cigarette market.
And while that is down from 34 percent in the mid-1990s—due to a combination of improved law enforcement, new tracing technologies and other industry initiatives—this still means that roughly one in three cigarettes sold in Brazil is unlawful.
In terms of sales, Brazil’s illegal cigarette market ranks fourth in Latin America, outstripping the total market in several countries.
Counterfeits account for a comparatively small part of the black market. Smuggling and tax evasion are even bigger concerns.
As is often the case, differentials in tax rates are to blame. Brazil taxes cigarettes at about 70 percent of their retail price, compared with 20-25 percent in Paraguay. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to picture the potential profits to be made from manufacturing in Paraguay and sneaking your product across the border for sale in Brazil.
And many appear to have made that calculation. According to some estimates, Paraguay has 40 cigarette factories—on a population of less than 4 million.
If they were serving the domestic market only, Paraguayans would be consuming an ungodly number of cigarettes, and their country would probably replace Asia as the World Health Organization’s top priority.