Background Illicit tobacco products have a disproportionately negative effect on public health. Counterfeits and cheap whites as well as legal brands smuggled from countries not adopting track and trace technologies will require novel forensic tools to aid the disruption of their supply chains.
Methods Data sets of trace element concentrations in tobacco were obtained using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry on samples of legal and illicit products mainly from Europe. Authentic and counterfeit products were discriminated by identifying outliers from data sets of legal products using Mahalanobis distance and graphical profiling methods. Identical and closely similar counterfeits were picked out using Euclidean distance, and counterfeit provenance was addressed using chemometric methods to identify geographical affinities.
Results Taking Marlboro as an exemplar, the major brands are shown to be remarkably consistent in composition, in marked contrast to counterfeits bearing the same brand name. Analysis of 35 illicit products seized in the European Union (EU) indicates that 18 are indistinguishable or closely similar to Marlboro legally sold in the EU, while 17 are sufficiently different to be deemed counterfeit, among them being 2 counterfeits so closely similar that their tobaccos are likely to come from the same source. The tobacco in the large majority of counterfeits in this data set appears to originate in Asia.
Conclusions Multivariate and graphical analysis of trace elements in tobacco can effectively authenticate brands, crossmatch illicit products across jurisdictions and may identify their geographical sources.
- Illegal tobacco products
- Tobacco industry
- Global health
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