New Study Uses Four Different Approaches to Estimate Illicit Cigarette Trade in Brazil

Understanding the scope and nature of illicit cigarette trade is necessary for well-functioning administration. Analysis of illicit trade is needed to guide law enforcement activities, as it provides vital intelligence to customs, police, and other relevant agencies to protect markets and consumers from the inflow of illicit products. Additionally, since the effectiveness of tobacco control measures, including the effectiveness of tobacco taxation, is affected significantly by the availability of illicit products, knowledge about the scope of illicit cigarette trade helps policymakers evaluate newly-implemented tobacco control policies as well as predict the impact of future policies.

Despite the increase in research on the topic, there is still little known about the reliability of different primary approaches when it comes to estimating illicit cigarette trade. A new study, co-authored by André Szklo from the Brazilian National Cancer Institute (INCA); Roberto Iglesias, a technical officer at the WHO; Jeffrey Drope and Michal Stoklosa from Tobacconomics at University of Illinois- Chicago; Valeska Figueiredo, Paulo Borges, and Hannah Nascimento from FIOCRUZ; and Kevin Welding from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, fills this evidence gap by comparing the illicit cigarette trade estimates from four different survey approaches: a telephone survey of smokers, a household survey of smokers with examination of the smokers’ packs, a collection of littered packs from the streets, and an examination of packs that were properly disposed in the household garbage. This is the first large-scale study comparing estimates of illicit trade obtained through more than three methodologies.

Similar to findings from previous studies in Poland and Mexico, the littered pack collection method in Brazil yielded a slightly higher estimate of illicit cigarette trade compared to the survey of cigarette smokers. This discrepancy may be a result of smokers’ unwillingness to admit to using illicit cigarettes, a higher rate of littering among illicit cigarette smokers, and/or the fact that the littered pack collection captures smoking by foreign tourists, while the household survey of smokers does not. In line with a study conducted in the USA, the estimate of illicit trade obtained from the littered pack collection method was similar to the estimate from the examination of packs appropriately discarded in household garbage.

In Brazil, illicit trade estimates extrapolated from household garbage were slightly lower than estimates from the littered pack collection method—a possible result of smokers of illicit cigarettes being supposedly more likely to litter. The telephone survey results were markedly lower that the results from each of the other approaches, likely because the data collected excluded smokers who did not have a landline and included a limited set of questions about the pack characteristics. It is also possible that smokers are less likely to admit that they use illicit cigarettes in a telephone survey, compared to a face-to-face survey where they are asked to produce the pack. The researchers did not find dramatic differences in the estimates of illicit trade using each of the three approaches in which cigarette packs were examined. Thus, the methods can be used interchangeably, although it is still recommended that studies use several approaches to triangulate the results.

Recently, Tobacconomics released several products that focus on illicit tobacco trade, including,  A Toolkit on Measuring Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which aims to guide research in the field and examines the best practices for estimating illicit trade accurately. The toolkit provides a step-by-step technical guide for researchers and discusses the strengths and limitations of primary and secondary research methods. Alongside the toolkit, a Policy Brief and White Paper were published, along with four country case studies in the Philippines, United Kingdom, South Africa, and Colombia. Most recently, Tobacconomics partnered with Cancer Research UK to publish a Supplement in Tobacco Control in addition to a Blog, which summarizes the original research from seven low- and middle-income countries.

Because tobacco companies often use the threat of illicit trade to halt the implementation of tobacco control policies, it is essential to counter their claims with accurate and reliable estimates of illicit trade. This study in Brazil, in combination with the other products on illicit trade released by Tobacconomics, provide a helpful guide for researchers to do just that.