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SmoKings: Not Smoking Hurts the State Finances

Michele Fornasero’s documentary is now available on US digital platforms

Michele Fornasero’s freature film tells a true story of two Italian brothers who decided to challenge the tobacco industry with their business at the edge of legality, putting under the spotlight the system’s interest and hypocrisy. The documentary is now available in the USA.

“SmoKings” starts in Moscow, when, in 2000, Carlo and Gianpaolo Messina, two Italian brothers living in the Russian capital, decide to open a business at the edge of legality. This business – which will later be defined illegal by law – was called Yesmoke. It consisted in an online sale of cigarette, and therefore, it was the declaration of war to the tobacco giants. From a Swiss Freeport, they shipped cartons of cigarettes all over the world via mail, at lower prices, and avoiding the taxes imposed by the state monopolies. At first, no one noticed; however, one day, Philip Morris awakened and, through endless legal lawsuits, made the Messinas shut down for unfair competition.

The two brothers didn’t give up. They went back home to Settimo Torinese, not far from Turin, Italy, and with all the money earned – and it was a lot –, they opened a cigarette factory: they now control the entire chain of production and distribution and the quality of their products. Everything is “Made in Italy” and they sell their Yesmoke cigarettes all over the world. The production is increasing year after year, and the business is doing well. But this time is the AAMS – Amministrazione Autonoma dei Monopoli di Stato, the Aumonomous Administration of the State Monopolies of Italy, which today is the Agenzia delle Dogane e dei Monopoli, the Customs and Monopolies Agency – to declare war to the Messina brothers. Meanwhile, Philip Morris and the other tobacco royals keep their war of attrition going, boycotting Yesmoke in any possible way.


The movie poster for “SmoKings” (2014), a documentary directed by the Italian director Michele Fornasero.

The Messina brothers kept going for a couple of year – it’s not about money, even though they are trying to hold their business together. Theirs is a fundamental war to get more equal regulations on free competition, in one of the most patronage, corrupted and lucrative markets of the world. Everyone knows about the health dangers of smoking, but we need to put it to the side for once, as Michele Fornasero’s “SmoKings” documentary is. In fact, the feature film doesn’t tell us about the dangers of smoking, but the way in which the big tobacco multinationals and the different governments go hand in hand.

The Messina brothers won the battle against Philip Morris and achieved to take away any Italian reference from the Diana cigarette package, a company that hasn’t been Italian for years now. When their factory is seized, they break the seals and start the production again. They obtain the Italian governmen’s promise to revise a minimum mandatory price for cigarettes. They are trying to show that the quantity of hazardous and illegal substances in the cigarettes produced by the corporations is out of control. Even though the “big brands” would say the opposite.

Using the crime-story-style, Fornasero’s documentary narrates 13 years of the Messina brothers’ personal, and above all, illegal and administrative events. However, the two brothers are not the good guys in our story: they are simply the less evil. “SmoKings” has the merit of telling the facts without glorifying the main characters – who, instead, result a little obnoxious. It doesn’t have a thesis to prove, but simply facts and information to reveal. While keeping one eye on the aesthetic – Yesmoke’s red, the same color as its nemesis Marlboro – and leaving out health ethics – on which there is no debate – and social behavior ethics, the documentary dwells on working ethics and the laws that regulate the field instead.

The feature film tells the story up to 2013. We know that on Nov. 27th, 2014, Carlo and Gianpaolo Messina are arrested under the accusation of smuggling and tax evasion.  The operation was promoted by the Dipartimento Antifrode of the Agenzia delle Dogane e dei Monopoli, along with Germany and the OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office).

While the Messina brothers are still waiting for their sentence, “SmoKings” was presented at many international festivals, won important awards and released the DVD. Moreover, it’s available in streaming in Italy, as well as in other countries, and now it’s finally available on the US digital platforms. Thus, smokers and non-smokers take a look at it, even just out of curiosity.

The governments go through the trouble to declare war against smoking, rightly so, through advertisement campaigns and deterrent statements on cigarette packages, because smoking does kill. However, it’s also true that they can’t renounce to all the earnings from this business. The only problem is that to do so, the governments turn a blind eye to whoever makes them earn more money. And from what I see there are plenty exploitative situations in this field. Even though the documentary does not present them, those poor situations lay as a background to this multimillionaire business.

Following, the Italian official trailer of the documentary “SmoKings” with English subtitles:

Translated by Giulia Casati.

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