• June 15, 2024

Not Lost Yet

 Not Lost Yet
Photo: JTI Poland

While struggling with rising cost and mounting regulations, Polish tobacco companies can cheer the retreat of the illicit market.

By Vladislav Vorotnikov

In the next few years, Poland may lose a part of its competitive edge as a regional tobacco superpower owing to controversial European Commission policy. This will happen unless common sense prevails or the government finds the courage to stand up to Brussels, according to market players.

Poland is one of 12 countries in the EU that grows tobacco. For eight, including Poland, this is a strategic economic sector. Poland is also the largest exporter of tobacco products in the EU, with nearly 10 percent of the country’s agricultural and food exports, 80 percent of which goes to the EU market.

The last few years have been rough for Polish tobacco growers, primarily owing to surging operating costs in Europe, according to Lukasz Szymanski, owner of Solidus Tobacco, a trading company.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, we have observed a systematic shrinking of the tobacco-growing sector in Poland. This was caused by systematically rising energy and labor costs, which were the main obstacle for many growers,” Szymanski said.

Szymanski, who has been in the tobacco business since 2015, selling mostly green tobacco and tobacco in the form of strips primarily to European customers, last year moved to expand activities and open an additional branch in the port of Trieste, Italy, eyeing markets outside the EU, specifically in the Middle East.

Weak demand in the European market might be a key rationale for Polish tobacco businesses to seek opportunities overseas.

“For many years, market tobacco purchase prices remained at the same level, which effectively discouraged many farmers from further cultivation,” Szymanski said, adding that since he stepped into the market, he saw a gradual decline in the sales volumes, which, he calculated, nearly halved between 2016 and 2022.

In the coming years, the lives of Polish tobacco growers could become even more challenging. Market players are increasingly concerned about the fallout of the November summit of the World Health Organization in Panama. This summit, in the opinion of some Polish tobacco businesses, has been perceived as a public declaration of war on the industry.

“We are afraid that the Polish tobacco industry will be killed by [the] Panama [summit]. The threat of unemployment hangs over us. We do not understand why employees of legitimate businesses should fall victim to international interference in Polish affairs,” said Marcin Klimczyk, chairman of the National Section of Tobacco Industry Workers.

Polish leaf producction has steadily declined in recent years. (Photo: Solidus Tobacco)

Bracing for Impact

At the end of 2023, Polish businesses, united in their concerns, appealed to the government, seeking protection. Among other things, the National Chamber of Commerce, a prominent business union, has questioned the rationale behind participating in the WHO tobacco convention, voluntarily accepting constraints on tobacco business. The organization indicated that the countries not taking part in the initiative, specifically the United States and Great Britain, are more successful in fighting tobacco addiction.

Accepting new rules will have a heavy impact, not only in Poland but also in the entire EU, players believe.

“I am surprised that Europe is moving in this direction,” Marek Kowalski, chairman of the Federation of Polish Entrepreneurs, told Rzech Pospolita. “There will come a time when the EU will no longer be competitive on the tobacco market with countries outside it, which will willingly fill this gap.”

Poland is the world’s largest manufacturer of nicotine sachets, noted Zbigniew Jankowski, a spokesperson from Swedish Match.

“We are convinced that the implementation of the WHO recommendations by the EC after Panama may lead to a ban on their sale in Europe and, in fact, to the destruction of this fledgling market. Companies will go bankrupt; people will go out of business,” Jankowski said.

On top of that, many people who have given up cigarettes in favor of less harmful alternative products, such as nicotine sachets, will be deprived of them if the WHO recommendations are implemented. This could have a significant impact on public health and the industry’s revenue.

Polish tobacco companies are increasingly looking for opportunities overseas.

Flourishing Industry

In the long run, new regulations can undermine the investment attractiveness of the Polish tobacco industry, which secures roughly 8 percent of taxes for the national budget.

In the past few years, the general mood in the Polish tobacco industry was predominantly positive.

Cigarette volume sales declined by less than 1 percent in 2023 while the value grew due to increased prices, Euromonitor International, a think tank, calculated.

“In 2022, the influx of refugees from Ukraine strongly revived cigarette sales, but the impact of this factor weakened in 2023. This factor also resulted in lower volume sales of fine-cut tobacco. Meanwhile, novelty nicotine and tobacco products, such as e-vapor products, heated-tobacco products and nicotine pouches, continued to show a significant increase in demand,” said Lina Sidorenke, an analyst with Euromonitor International.

“Closed-system disposable devices emerged as the big winner with the strongest growth in 2023. Demand for cigars remained stable; however, high demand in Asian markets and the USA has led to fewer cigars being imported to Poland. Despite regular excise duty increases, Poland still stands out in the region for low prices of tobacco products,” Sidorenke said.

Moreover, Poland has recently achieved drastic progress in fighting against illicit trade in the tobacco market.

In recent years, the illegal sales of cigarettes in Poland have declined dramatically, Sidorenke claimed.

“As of 2023, the gray market comprised less than 5 percent of all cigarette volume sales. Poland has demonstrated significant success in combating illicit trade, thanks to a united effort by the police, Border Guard and National [Revenue] Administration,” Sidorenke indicated, adding that in the past, a significant portion of contraband previously originated from Belarus and Ukraine, but the imposition of sanctions on Belarus and the war in Ukraine has led to stricter border controls, resulting in a significant decrease in illegal inflows to Poland.

JTI Poland has invested heavily in reduced risk product manufacturing.

Emerging Niches

The positive developments encourage international giants to pump more money into their Polish operations, primarily eyeing the segment of heated-tobacco products.

“While sales of traditional tobacco products in Poland are relatively stable, the heated-tobacco products category has been constantly growing in the last five years, accounting for about 11 percent of the entire nicotine market in the country today,” commented Adrian Jablonski, corporate affairs and communications director of Japan Tobacco International Poland.

“In response to these evolving consumer trends, we introduced Ploom X—JTI’s third-generation heated-tobacco product—to the Polish market in September last year. Our heated-tobacco sticks [HTS] are produced at the state-of-the-art factory in Stary Gostkow, where we have already invested over $200 million in the reduced-risk products factory,” he added.

Jablonski added that JTI plans to continue to develop the HTS category in Poland, though the company cannot reveal details for competitive reasons.

However, the segment may also feel the sting of the tightening regulations in the foreseeable future.

In February 2024, Polish Health Minister Izabela Leszczyna announced that the government was considering a ban on the sale of disposable electronic cigarettes, as reported by the local newspaper Business Insider.

Leszczyna added that she would like to pursue the fastest possible legislative path to such a measure, given that as many as 64 percent of young people in Poland had “contact” with the product.

“Single-use e-cigarettes currently dominate the e-vapor product market in Poland. This trend has surged over the past three years. If Poland were to follow the U.K.’s lead and implement a ban on disposable e-cigarettes, it could significantly impact the entire e-vapor market,” Sidorenke said.

Sidorenke added that while some consumers may transition to other alternatives within the sector, a decline in overall e-vapor market demand is likely.

Heated-tobacco products in Poland currently face fewer regulatory restrictions compared to combustible cigarettes, with lower taxation and continued availability of flavored products. Despite calls from the European Commission for Poland to adhere to EU regulations prohibiting flavored heated-tobacco products, they remain on sale as of April 2024.

“However, it’s anticipated that new regulations will be implemented rather soon. It’s worth noting that the market has historically adapted to regulatory changes, as seen after the ban on flavors in traditional cigarettes. Thus, even with a potential flavor ban, the market is expected to adjust accordingly,” Sidorenke indicated.

In the next five years, the tobacco and nicotine market is expected to advance toward the development of next-generation novelty products, partially at the expense of traditional cigarettes and smoking tobacco, Euromonitor International analysts forecast.

A negative or uncertain forecast is anticipated for cigars, cigarillos, snuff and pipe tobacco. Beginning May 20, 2024, all tobacco products in Poland will be subject to the track-and-trace system. Previously, the EU track-and-trace system only covered cigarettes and fine-cut tobacco. However, as of May 2024, cigars, cigarillos, snuff and pipe tobacco will also fall under this system.

“This expansion will impose additional burdens on manufacturers and retailers due to the costs, complexity and compliance requirements. In anticipation, some distributors have already indicated plans to withdraw these items from their offerings after the system comes into effect,” Sidorenke said.