China Tobacco Goes Global

Credit: Svetlana Tiourina
Published: June 22, 2021

You’ve heard of Marlboro, Camel, and Lucky Strike, but what about Silver Elephant, Red Pagoda Mountain, and Double Happiness?

China National Tobacco Corporation is the world’s largest tobacco company, accounting for nearly half of global cigarette production. The secretive state-backed giant holds a virtual monopoly over China’s vast tobacco market, the world’s largest, selling more than Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, and Japan Tobacco International combined.

Unlike these traditional “Big Tobacco” companies, China Tobacco’s rapid rise has gone largely unremarked in much of the world. That is now starting to change as the company expands aggressively into new countries as part of Beijing’s controversial “Belt and Road” initiative.

Journalists from OCCRP and its partners on five continents spent months investigating the massive conglomerate and its dizzying array of subsidiaries and joint ventures. They discovered China Tobacco is using many of the same strategies Big Tobacco employed in the 1990s, flooding countries with cigarettes and working with smuggling networks that move them into Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East.

Read on to learn more about the biggest tobacco company you’ve never heard of.

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The Big Picture

China’s State Tobacco Company is Massive at Home. Now it’s Ready to Take Over the World

China Tobacco is using advertising, investment, and social projects to influence governments and consumers around the world, while flooding markets in countries where its cigarettes cannot legally be sold — all methods "Big Tobacco" has employed for decades.

22 June 2021 Read the article

What is China Tobacco?

How is China Tobacco different from other multinational tobacco companies? Who regulates it? And where are its cigarettes sold?

22 June 2021 Read the article


Illegal Chinese Cigarettes Flooding Latin America Flow Through Panama

China Tobacco’s factory in Panama was shut down by authorities after its cigarettes kept making their way onto the black market there. A network of companies sprang up in its place — and have been shipping huge numbers of cigarettes from Panama around the region.

22 June 2021 Read the article

A Fake Shipping Container Leads to Chinese Cigarettes — and Italy's Camorra Crime Group

A bust of 17 tons of illicit cigarettes in Italy led back to China Tobacco’s European factory — where an executive was working closely with a group of smugglers to help them move cigarettes around Europe. Reporters found the company shipping large numbers of cigarettes to suspicious buyers in Iraq, Montenegro, Moldova, and more.

22 June 2021 Read the article

China Tobacco 'Very Discreetly' Becomes Leaf-Buying Powerhouse in Brazil

China is complying with recommendations under a global treaty to decrease the amount of land under tobacco cultivation –– but its massive state-owned conglomerate is shifting production overseas. Brazil has become a major supplier, with farmers working under difficult conditions to grow tobacco for Chinese cigarettes.

22 June 2021 Read the article

Huge Quantities of Chinese Cigarettes Smuggled Into Ukraine

China Tobacco’s factory in Europe is selling hundreds of millions of cigarettes to companies in Ukraine under investigation for cigarette smuggling.

22 June 2021 Read the article

Contract Tobacco Farmers in Zimbabwe Say They Are ‘Drowning in Debt’

Growers say they often end up trapped in a painful debt cycle as they struggle to pay for expensive inputs they can ill afford, while a controversial currency system run by Zimbabwe’s central bank saps much of what is left of their income.

8 September 2021 Read the article

Romanian Prosecutors Probe China Tobacco for Millions of ‘Disappeared’ Cigarettes

Anti-organized crime prosecutors are investigating China Tobacco in Romania for possible links to smuggling by organized crime groups.

11 January 2023 Read the article

Project Credits

Project Coordinators: Alessia Cerantola, Andrei Ciurcanu

Contributing Journalists and Editors:

OCCRP: Alessia Cerantola, Andrei Ciurcanu, Jared Ferrie, Caroline Henshaw, Nathan Jaccard, Lilia Saúl, Khadija Sharife, Luiz Fernando Toledo, Beauregard Tromp, Julia Wallace

Cambodia: Bopha Phorn
Concolón (Panama): Sol Lauría
Cuestión Pública (Colombia): David Tarazona, Mateo Yepes
Houston Chronicle: St. John "Sinjin" Barned-Smith
The Intercept (Brazil): Naira Hofmeister
The Kyiv Post (Ukraine): Anna Myroniuk
Newshawks (Zimbabwe): Owen Garare, Nhau Mangirazi
RISE Romania: Andre Ciurcanu
Süddeutsche Zeitung: Christoph Giesen
TVI Portugal: Rolando Santos

Other Contributors:

Fact-Checking: Ivana Jeremic, Roxana Jipa, Olena LaFoy, Bojana Pavlovic, Dima Stoianov
Research: Lara Dihmis, David Ilieski, Dragana Peco, Daniel Salazar Murillo, Karina Shedrofsky
Graphics: Tamas Szemann, Edin Pasovic
Illustration: Svetlana Tiourina
Promotion: Charles Turner
Layout and Web Interactives: Mark Nightingale
Video: Reported by Naira Hofmeister, shot by Daniela Xu, edited by Sergiu Brega

OCCRP received a grant from Vital Strategies to fund part of this work.

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