Meet the 17-Year-Old Getting Rich Dealing Snus Illegally
In Finland, the black market for Swedish tobacco is worth almost £45 million a year. With the support of his parents, Niklas is cashing in too.
This article originally appeared on VICE Scandinavia
Niklas, 17, is standing in his parents' home inspecting the product that pays for the expensive gold watch and designer clothes he's wearing. The Finnish teenager has just accepted his weekly delivery of more than 950 packs of snus – a Swedish moist tobacco that's illegal to buy everywhere in the EU except Sweden.
Prior to Finland and Sweden joining the EU in 1995, Finland was home to around a dozen snus factories. Because the EU had banned snus, the factories in Finland were forced to close. But in Sweden, snus is such a traditional staple, that the EU decided to make an exception. That exception created a sudden lucrative black market in Finland.
Growing up in Finland, I knew at least ten people who sold snus to make some extra money, but none of them are were anywhere near as successful as Niklas. "I make €5,000 (£4,400) a month." he tells me. "I live a pretty sweet life and I do a lot of shopping."
It should be noted that one is allowed to import snus into Finland, but only a maximum of one kilogram, and as long as it's for personal consumption. The majority of legally imported snus is purchased on commercial ferries that go back and forth between the two countries. Most of the snus brought back to Finland is bought in Haparanda, a town by the Finnish border in northern Sweden. It's estimated that about 80 to 85 percent of the snus sold in Haparanda is bought by Finns.
People are often caught at the Finnish border trying to smuggle in more snus than is allowed. In April, Finnish customs officers seized 1,300 kilos of snus in one single operation. Last year, 300 cases where snus had been smuggled into the country were investigated – a total of 3,442 kilos, which was an increase of a third from the previous year. Luckily for dealers like Niklas, actively going after offenders is a low priority for the Finnish police who have the lowest number of staff per 1,000 people in the EU.
Niklas claims to be the biggest dealer of snus in the province of Southwest Finland. In recent years, he's grown his operation – he now relies on six distributors to help sell his product. "Everybody knows me," Niklas tells me. "Before I started working with distributors, I would easily spend four hours after school selling snus."
Not only are Niklas' parents aware of where all of their son's personal wealth is coming from, but they were initial investors. "I was on the boat to Sweden with my dad, and he bought an entire backpack full of snus," he says. "I sold it in Finland and realised immediately how profitable it was."
These days, their workflow is slightly more advanced. Niklas has one supplier that he met on Facebook. He barely knows him, he admits, but his distributors are all trusted friends.
Because of the high demand, Niklas tells me he can sell his product for double the retail price, which makes him an average profit of €300 (£260) per box of 240 packs. "Each delivery is always sold out before the next one arrives," Niklas said.
Finland's black market for snus is believed to be worth €50 million per year. A big part of that trade is done through social media. At the time of writing, there are at least 190 Finnish Facebook groups dedicated to selling snus – the largest of these groups has more than 17,000 members. Like Niklas, most of these dealers are selling for double the price they bought it. The lack of effective police monitoring means most dealers don't even bother using fake names when they join.
I contacted Ida Schauman, Vice President of the Swedish People's Party of Finland (SFP), and one of the few politicians in support of legalising snus in Finland. "I'm not a big fan of snus, but I think that legislation should be consistent," she said via e-mail. "Today, selling and buying cigarettes is legal, while snus, which is less dangerous, is not. I see a legalised and regulated trade as a better option than an illegal trade, for which the Finnish police doesn't have enough manpower to fight." She also hopes that legalising snus will make smoking less attractive.
If you do get caught selling snus, you could be charged for a range of crimes, including smuggling and tax fraud. For a single gram of illegally imported snus, you could be forced to pay as much as 37 cents in taxes – approximately €1700 (£1500) per box.
Despite the risks, Niklas is certain his associates won't rat on him. "Nobody would dare snitch on me, because they know the kind of people I have on my side," he tells me. Niklas claims he's only ever been owed money by someone once, and that the issue was resolved after this person had an axe smashed through their front door.
Though he enjoys the money and power that come with dealing snus, Niklas doesn't plan to be in this line of work forever. In fact, aside from the occasional small shipment, he plans to retire from the business when he turns 18.
He laughs when I ask him what would happen if he got caught before then. "I'd have to pay the Finnish government over a million euros," he says. "There are days, sometimes weeks or even months, when I get paranoid and think the police will figure things out. But there's no way I'm ever going to get caught. It's impossible."
*Niklas' name was changed to protect his identity