Cairo, Al Masry Al Youm — Mustafa, 10, holds a cigarette of the kind he has been smoking for almost one and a half years. The smoke from his imported cigarettes floats up and hides the slender face of this orphan living on the streets
Mustafa chose Sayida Aysha Square as his ‘home’ after the vendors and residents of the Square took him in, provided him with a mattress and tens of cigarette cartons of various brands of Chinese cigarettes that are banned to support local factories producing cigarettes.
Each carton containing 10 cigarette packs which Mustafa sells to passers-by and makes between five to 10 Egyptian pounds a day – just enough to buy him a bite to suppress his hunger.
Mustafa smokes two packs of Chinese cigarettes a day, often given to him for free by street vendors. He started complaining from headaches, dizziness and blurring since he started smoking Chinese cigarettes.
We are at Bab El Bahr, one of the most famous commercial areas in Egypt linking the old district of Bab El Sha’riya and Ramses Square, encompassing old Islamic architectural patterns.
Over the years, the authenticity of Bab El Bahr resisted all invasions and attempts at changing its character but it did not succeed for long in standing up to the ‘Chinese cigarette invasion’ of the Egyptian market which changed the commercial activity of the Square.
Most of the stores shifted from selling groceries, pastries, printing and coal business to selling contraband cigarettes, making Bab El Bahr one of the most famous wholesale areas for these cigarettes.
Vendors and merchants in the area take a big risk displaying cartons of over 80 brands of Chinese cigarettes of unknown provenance on the sidewalk and in open view to all passers-by but they do not seem to mind. The profits are huge.
At the doorstep of one of the stores in the area stands a young man in his twenties, unpacking cartons of Chinese cigarettes from boxes while a helper stacks them up in the store’s display window.
At first, the young man – Mohammad as he presented himself – was worried and reluctant to talk about why he is selling Chinese cigarettes. But he changed his mind and said: “for more than six years, Chinese products have flooded the market so what is the big deal about Chinese cigarettes?”.
Mohammad began trading cigarettes six months ago and says is it an “easy way of making a living”. The sale of one cigarette carton earns him 15 Egyptian pounds, a sum he never earned during all his years working in the printing business or selling children’s toys. He says, “This way, one can achieve everything he desires, get married early and build a future, because these days a public sector job and a degree will not earn me the most basic of livelihoods”.
In the heart of the district, Um Kalthoum’s music blares from the loud speakers of one of the coffee shops. Surrounded by tens of cartons of Chinese cigarettes, Abu Ahmad sits on a wooden chair at the entrance of the neighbourhood and sings along to “Kawkab el Sharq”. The only time he stops singing is when a customer interrupts to buy a carton of cigarettes.
Of all the brands on display, Malimbo and Capital are the best sellers, according to Abu Ahmad. “They are the most popular,” he says, followed by Royal, Denver, King and Queen.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), ten million people smoke 80 billion locally-produced cigarettes every year, some of whom, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), have started to become fascinated with Chinese cigarettes and now lean towards smoking them.
Abu Ahmad says there are many advantages to smoking Chinese cigarettes. Price wise, they stand at a third of the cost of Egyptian cigarettes and their packaging is “chic”. They carry cartoon drawings instead of the “disgusting pictures” imposed by the Ministry of Health on all local cigarettes.
“These cigarettes are unique because they contain two filters. This means that the cigarettes are clean and live up to specifications. We have chocolate-flavoured cigarettes and whisky-flavoured cigarettes are expected soon. In fact, some of the big merchants have already received samples”.
The Eastern Tobacco Company – the only tobacco manufacturer in Egypt that does not import cigarettes – complains that more and more Egyptians are buying smuggled cigarettes. The Company’s production has dropped from 79.9 billion cigarettes in 2010 to 77 billion in 2011.
After the advent and wide circulation of Chinese cigarettes on the Egyptian market, these journalists asked doctors from the National Research Centre to conduct a study on samples of these Chinese-made cigarettes, to identify the nature of their composition.
Over the course of two consecutive months, the medical team of the Myotoxin and Food Safety Laboratory at the National Research Centre analysed 11 types of smuggled Chinese cigarettes that are widely traded on the market: Malimbo, MJ, American Legend, Roseman, Richman Royal, Capital, Platien, Royal Business, Manchester, Denver Silver and Business King Size.
The six-stage analysis commissioned by ‘Al Masry Al Youm’ starts by emptying tobacco from the cigarettes and ends with the identification of the components of the tobacco and their percentages.
The first stage places emptied tobacco with the filter and paper, in a glass jar. The second stage includes mixing the ‘tobacco’ sample well and efficiently to guarantee homogeneity. The third stage is measuring 20 grams of the sample, to be weighed and placed in a fixed speed mixer to guarantee the uniformity of the tobacco. In the fourth stage, the sample is placed in various organic solvents to extract and transform it into liquid form. The solution is then concentrated during the fifth stage and finally, in the sixth stage, the sample is injected in the Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry Machine (GC-MS) to identify the ingredients. This is done in two stages; the first is to burn the sample for two hours in the machine to separate the compounds from one another, and the second stage allows the identification of the compounds in the sample, their names and percentages are revealed on the computer linked to the MS/GC.
The test results, according to Dr. Mohammad Dabiss, one of the researches on this team reveal that these cigarettes contain a large number of compounds, imperfections and dirt unrecognised by international specifications in the tobacco industry.
Dabiss says, “We were able to identify 63 compounds in most of the brands submitted for testing. The GC-MS recognised these compounds. None of them appear in local cigarettes. The study designated five of these recognized compounds as the most dangerous, causing cancer; Naphtalene-1-Propanol which was found in the cigarette samples of the following brands, “Royal Business (king size)”, “American legend”, “Capital” and “Platien”.
In brands such as “Royal”, “Malimbo”, “Manchester”, “MJ” and “Platien” the compound 1,2-Benzenedicarboxylic acid dissooctyl ester while 2-hydroxy-2,2-diphenylethyl Benzamide in the samples taken from “Platien”, “Manchester” and “Royal Business king size” were detected.
Those three compounds damage DNA and cause mutations that render cell division in-consistent and subsequently allow tumours to develop in human tissue, according to scientific references ‘2002 (GP el al 1991) Pfeifer, Stein, L. and Ronald, W.P’, confirms Dr. Dabiss.
The study also revealed the presence of 1.2-propadienyl Cyclohexane in the samples of ‘MJ, Malimbo and Platien’ which is harmful to the human nervous system according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer in France, cited in the National Research Centre’s report. The report adds that, “Compound 1,4,9 methanonazulene, octahydroV, a3-H (found in cigarette samples Royal, Platien, Capital, Richman and Royal Business (king size) causes lung, brain bladder and testicular cancer”. This is according to the Reproductive and Cancer Hazard Assessment Branch Office and to the Environmental Health Hazard Assessment of the California Environmental Protection Agency.
For his part, Dr. Dabiss comments, “All cigarette brands and the tobacco they contain are harmful and expose human beings to cancer. However, the study concluded that the five most dangerous compounds are specific to smuggled Chinese cigarettes.
We went back to some scientific references and discovered that they cause cancer in several organs of the human body if they are smoked continually. Being cheaper than local made cigarettes more people are smoking them unconsciously, thus increasing the risk of smokers getting cancer”.
The research team submitted a detailed report of its findings to the customs department and consumer protection authorities urging them put into place necessary plans to tackle smuggling and lift the smuggled cigarettes off the market.
Al Masry al Yawm monitored the testing procedure and then took the results to the experts at the National Cancer Institute to understand the effects of these compounds on human cells before they mutate into cancer cells. Dr. Samya Shoman, professor of Cancer Biology at the National Cancer Institute, confirms that these compounds are classified as Aromatic Hydrocarbons which react with the DNA of cells when catalytic agents are present inside or outside the body.
Dr. Shoman says:“Any cell in the human body has two sets of genes. The first are called Oncogenes and their function is to replace dead cells, contributing to the growth of the cells that in turn maintains the makeup of the human body. There is also a gene called P53 which serves to arrest the multiplication and further division of normal cells when the number reaches the required level. When the compounds in question penetrate the cells, they increase the growth activity of the oncogenes and suppress the regulatory activity of the P53 genes, allowing the cells to multiply and divide uncontrollably until tumours appear. Benign tumours, on the other hand, do not alter the nature of gene activity.
Dr. Shoman goes on to say, “Developing a malignant tumour is a complicated process. It depends on how much a person smokes, on the body itself and its immune system, in addition to the level of exposure to the environmental factors that induce the disease. In most cases, people are unaware that they have cancer until a tumour grows to the point where it presses against other organs, affecting their activity or efficiency”.
The start of a malignant tumour can take ten years and radio imaging cannot detect it until it is at least one centimetre in size. Even then, the patient does not feel any pain and the tumour continues to grow until it becomes difficult to control, diminishing the patient’s chances of recovery.
As for the symptoms of cancer that are specific to Chinese cigarette smokers, Dr. Shoman says, “It begins with weight loss, headaches and blurred vision, and it affects the heart and blood vessel activity. It is noteworthy that malignant tumours caused by smoking are not exclusive to smokers. Second hand smoke also causes malignant tumours so people surrounding smokers also get cancer.”
Having understood the initial indicators of the symptoms of cancer caused by smoking these kinds of smuggled cigarettes, we went back and walked around the streets of a number of popular markets to understand the extent of the effects of these cigarettes on the health of the locals who have gotten used to smoking them. One of them, a shop owner called Salim Tawfiq, developed severe chest pains and had difficulty breathing after smoking Chinese cigarettes for a whole year. He says, “I do not deny being a heavy smoker. In fact, because Chinese cigarettes are so cheap, I smoke around three packs a day. The symptoms I developed were similar to those of a heart attack and doctors made me undergo oxygen sessions so I immediately decided to quit smoking these Chinese cigarettes”.
In order to sample the different flavours of the cigarettes, Hussein Mahmoud, a tailor, started smoking ‘Capital’. Two months later, he started suffering from symptoms which he says included “a dry cough, breathlessness, headaches, excessive phlegm and heaviness in the chest.” He had to stop smoking Chinese cigarettes and go back to smoking the local cigarettes.
A student called Abanub Younan ended his ‘relationship’ with Chinese cigarettes only ten days after he started smoking them because his throat became ‘scratchy’ and ‘sore’ after each cigarette he smoked.
As for Amro Mohammad, a furniture maker who started to suffer from exhaustion after smoking Chinese cigarettes, he decided to quit smoking them a month later and advised his neighbours and colleagues to stop smoking them.
The risk of getting cancer of the lungs, bladder, brain and testicles from Chinese cigarettes is confirmed by Dr. Wasim Alsisi, a professor in urology and diseases of the male genitalia. He explains that hematuria is the first indicator of bladder cancer caused by smoking and exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, presenting as blood in the urine or the colour of urine changing to red, together with an extremely foul odour and possibly the presence of pieces of the tumour in the urine.
Dr. Ahmad Sirajeldin Al Helfawi, a professor of Pulmunology and Endoscopy, maintains that the late diagnosis of the cancer brings cell and tissue mutation to crisis level. If already in stage three and four cancer, the patient may not tolerate treatment and life expectancy may range from a mere six months to one and a half years, depending on the patient’s condition.
Dr. Siraj says that coughing up blood, the inability to eat and the general weakening of health are symptomatic of cancer. Also, small-cell lung carcinoma is considered the most common cancer resulting from smoking. The disease spreads from the lungs to the bones, the brain and the adrenal gland.
The tumour spreads from the lungs to the brain, the organ which controls the rest of the body and, according to Professor Dr. Omar Al Sarfy -a neurologist at the Qasr el Ainy Medical School- the symptoms will depend on the cortex that the tumour attacks. If the tumour attacks the sensory cortex, the patient will feel numbness in the extremities of the body, while if it hits the visual cortex, the patient will suffer from severe headaches and a blurring of the vision as a result of the infiltration of the optic nerve, potentially leading to blindness.
As for the effect of smoking on the nervous system, Dr. Sarfy says it is “both direct and indirect as it stimulates the nervous system, increasing its activity. This causes a level of fatigue which only a further dose of nicotine can fix, bringing the patient into a vicious cycle. Smoking also increases blood viscosity and this causes a thickening and hardening of the arteries which in return leads to heart attacks, paralysis and disability”.
The smuggling of Chinese cigarettes into continues despite a ban as there is an Egyptian company that covers the needs of the market, producing Egyptian brands as well as manufacturing foreign brands locally under license, says Fu’ad Bashir, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance and former director of the Customs Authority of the Eastern Region in Port Said. “There are high custom tariffs on cigarettes, reaching up to 8 Egyptian pounds per carton, as well as a sales tax. In order to keep the selling price of a pack of cigarettes down to one or two Egyptian pounds, importers resort to smuggling, concealing the goods and forging the shipping documents to bring them illegally through Customs”.
Bashir also reveals that “the cost of passing one container of cigarettes legally through the ports, after meeting health and regulatory requirements, amounts to 6 million Egyptian pounds, with a 40 foot container holding nine hundred to a thousand boxes of cigarettes”.
He adds, “During the post revolution period, Egypt started witnessing different forms of smuggling by land and sea, with some shipments exiting the country to Libya, transiting legally and directly through the ports after obtaining the required authorization from customs only to be brought back across the border.”
As for practical suggestions to limit smuggling, Fu’ad says that “the authorities have put an end to the Green Line policy of passing containers through customs without inspection, even for the large, well known importers. Four months ago the authorities started to inspect all containers without exception and to confiscate any goods that are hazardous to health or violate public morals”.
In addition, “Inspectors now also use x-ray machines to examine the containers. Some of the machines are stationary but others are ‘mobile’.”
One Customs official, asked for anonymity, says that the post revolution period was the toughest in countering cigarette smuggling. Then, ‘baltajiyeh’, local word for thugs, broke into the port area for the first time and forced port authority workers to allow the shipments through, threatening them with razor blades and knives.
A’atef Yacoub, the head of the Consumer Protection Authority, estimates that Egypt’s treasury loses 4 billion Egyptian pounds a year from cigarette smuggling (out of a total 13 billion Egyptian Pounds). The impact of these losses is compounded by the immeasurable cost to health and to the economy of these harmful chemicals putting smokers at a much higher risk of cancer.
At the Ministry of Finance’s Central Administration for Countering Customs Evasion, first secretary general Hassanein Shabaneh explained that smuggled Chinese cigarettes arrive in Egypt from Libya. Carton boxes are loaded onto small boats that hover in territorial waters without crossing any ports or undergoing inspection by customs authorities.
“Jebel Ali Port in the United Arab Emirates is the most effective port when it comes to monitoring the smuggling of cigarettes”.
In Port Said, we established an Investigation Bureau which succeeded in seizing large amounts of smuggled cigarettes placed inside containers of children’s toys, timber, furniture, screens and computers, vacuum cleaners and even in make-up boxes.” Tracking a container’s shipping route could take up to six months, he said.
His Department seized 480,862 cartons of cigarettes in 2011, but in the first six months of 2012, it seized a total of 725,520 cartons. Forty cases were filed against cigarette smugglers between January and June 2013, including one involving the seizure of 600,000 cigarette cartons in one of the warehouses in al Salam area.
Shabaneh also said that they were following up on trading operations in Bab El Bahr but the administration is not currently considering confiscating the merchandise in view of the security situation, overcrowding and congestion.
The profitability of trading in smuggled Chinese cigarettes is “second only to smuggling medicines, with each container making an additional net profit of 2 million Egyptian pounds,” he said.
He said that it has been six months since the administration banned the entry of cigarettes by land through Libya, a main access point for smuggled Chinese cigarettes. Under new rules, all cigarettes must be transported in containers to allow the Egyptian authorities to conduct thorough inspections and to guarantee that they are not re-routed back into Egypt. “Only containers coming from the ports of Ben Ghazi and Tripoli are allowed into Egypt. Those arriving through the port of Tabraq are turned away due to weak monitoring procedures.
When we asked him about the secret behind the widespread availability of these cigarettes on the market, Shabaneh said that “the cigarettes currently on offer are effectively old merchandise which was smuggled in during the period of security lapses.”
To resolve this crisis, Shabaneh called for amending articles 121 and 122 of the Customs Law to impose tougher sanctions on smugglers, raising the financial penalty to twofold or threefold the customs fees. Today the penalty is calculated at the value of the custom fees and this is obviously not deterring smugglers. Prison sentences should also become mandatory in sentencing rather than ‘permitted’, with the minimum prison sentence raised from two to three years. Chapter 9 in the imports chart and dealing with intellectual property should also be amended.”
This investigation was completed with support from ARIJ by members of the Investigative Unit at Al Masry Al Youm