If you live in a European, African, Asian or South American country, and are a smoker or know smokers, you may have noticed fancy little labels stuck onto the cigarette boxes or other tobacco products you encounter. Attached like a stamp on an envelope but with the ornate designs and security features of paper money, these little slips of intricacy are neither truly stamps or banknotes.
They are in fact cigarette and tobacco tax stamps, a method of collecting taxes by governments. While most countries and territories levy tax on goods such as tobacco and alcohol – the so-called ‘sin taxes’ due to the health implications of using these products – only some issue these special stamps which are attached to the packets by manufacturers in their factories. They are a really elaborate way of saying “Yes, I paid up the tax on my products”. Tax stamps also help tax officials and consumers distinguish the real deal from counterfeit, and often very dangerous, tobacco products. The stamps also act as a quality seal, positioned on the packaging in such a way that opening the box or pouch breaks apart the stamp, so a whole, undamaged stamp means a fresh and non-tampered pack of 20.
Most tax stamps are issued by national governments, who usually delegate the task of printing millions of stamps to their finance ministries or tax boards, depending on the administration. According to Professional Security Magazine Online, more than 140 billion tobacco and alcohol stamps are produced annually by more than 150 different national and state agencies. As tax agencies tackle an increasing tobacco smuggling and counterfeiting industry and the resulting need to safeguard tax revenues, they have made their stamps more and more complex, including hard-to-forge features such as holograms, machine-readable elements, UV and infra-red printing, complicated patterns and other security features. These attempts to thwart Ben and his cross-Channel smuggling band of chums flogging cheap ciggies at the local pub have had the added effect of making tax stamps more attractive as a collector’s item
Tax stamps have been around since the 19th century, but most people pay little attention to them. Nevertheless a community of collectors have grown around the humble and official-looking stickers, also known as banderoles or excise stamps. While nowhere near as popular as its cousin, postage stamp collecting, many have come to appreciate the hobby and of course, the beauty and collectible nature of these items. Indeed, early 20th century tax stamps from the United States’ Internal Revenue government body and 19th century European issues can fetch more than £5,000 on auction sites among dedicated hobbyists and investors in collectibles.
Andrey Vasiunin, a resident of Russia’s capital Moscow and the guitar and keyboard player of doom metal band Armaga, is probably the closest thing to a celebrity in the tax stamp collecting universe. A Korolev-born father of one who graduated in economics from the G.V. Plekhanov REA educational institute, Vasiunin caught the ‘collecting bug’ early on in his childhood, gathering up collections of badges, toys and wrappers in his school days. He even built up a fine dossier of the phrase “I love you” in various languages. Then in 2001, while lounging around on a fine and warm July summer’s day in his garden, smoking a cigarette, Vasiunin noticed the tax stamp perched nonchalantly on his smokes. His curiosity piqued, he admired the colourful patterns of the stamp’s design and became hooked. He peeled off the stamp and tucked it into his wallet.
It was this chance counter with a Russian ‘aktsiznaya marka’ or excise stamp, that would be the first step in Andrey Vasiunin’s ascendancy to become one of the leading lights of the hobby. He undertook a trip to the Czech Republic, where he encountered a different breed of tax stamp. Further intrigued, Vasiunin filched the Czech versions too, straight into his wallet. He then chanced upon Italian and French examples affixed to the pages of a friend’s notebook. Soon word of Vasiunin’s new and unorthodox hobby began to circulate among his friends, and tax stamps from across the globe started filling up his wallet. His addiction to tax stamps became so insatiable that he spent a day at a customs depot, going through cigarette packets being shipped in from the rest of Europe and removing their stamps for his collection.
As the Internet became established in Vasiunin’s home country, he decided to embrace the new technology, placing his stamp collection online for the world to see. In 2005, he created a website, akciza.narod.ru. Written bilingually in Russian and English and featuring scanned images of his prized specimens, Vasiunin’s one-stop tax stamp gallery on the Information Superhighway became the world’s first and currently only one of two such websites dedicated to tax stamps for tobacco and alcohol. Within a period of seven years, Vasiunin acquired nearly 600 stamps and cigarette seals from a hundred countries, many donated by good friends and fellow hobbyists who he met online.
In 2008, Andrey Vasiunin switched web service providers and unveiled a new and heavily upgraded site “Tax Stamps Collection of Vasiunin Andrey” with a more detailed look, customised header graphics and a bigger selection of images drawn from his collection, which now numbers more than 2,000 examples. With its distinctive vintage appearance and interactive gallery of Vasiunin’s collection, scanned in great detail and sorted by geographical region, countries and territories, the site has become a detailed window into this unknown hobby. According to Flag Counter, his e-collection has received more than 9,000 visits from over 6,000 visitors representing 175 countries. The highlight of the ‘Tax Stamps Collection’ is definitely its gallery, with stamps arranged as if though in a high-quality album, like the heavy-duty pricey ones you can find in stamp collector’s hobby outlets. Each image enlarges when clicked on, allowing you to appreciate the full beauty and detail of each of Vasiunin’s stamps. The issues for each territory are arranged in chronological order from oldest to newest. Fellow collectors can also arrange to swap and sell stamps to Andrey, with the website maintaining a guestbook for collectors to introduce themselves and interact with Andrey.
More recently, Vasiunin has branched out into social media, opening a Facebook version of his hit site – www.facebook.com/TaxStamps – where he showcases the latest additions to his collection. The Facebook page has already accrued a small community of nearly 200 fellow collectors.
You can visit Andrey Vasiunin’s site at www.tax-stamps.com
“TAX STAMPS” – Andrey Vasiunin http://www.akciza.narod.ru/index2.html
“About Me” – Andrey Vasiunin, Tax Stamps Collection of Vasiunin Andrey http://www.tax-stamps.com/about
“Collection” – Andrey Vasiunin, Tax Stamps Collection of Vasiunin Andrey http://www.tax-stamps.com/collection
Andrey Vasiunin’s Facebook profile.
Cigarette tax stamps collection, Andrey Vasiunin, Facebook, Facebook Inc. https://www.facebook.com/TaxStamps/
Flag Counter http://flagcounter.com/
“Track and trace” – Professional Security Magazine Online (10 July 2017) http://www.professionalsecurity.co.uk/news/interviews/track-and-trace/
“Armaga” – Spirit of Metal http://www.spirit-of-metal.com/groupe-groupe-Armaga-l-en.html