An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
Globally, Iran is one of the biggest importers of cosmetics. Boasting the 17th largest population in the world, Iran ranks seven when it comes to this lucrative import business, spending about a billion dollars on beauty products every year. And the illegal market is even bigger. It is a business that has been booming for years, but Iran’s Food and Drug Administration has been slow to acknowledge this, only drawing public attention to the problem in the last several months.
The popularity of makeup is easy to see. Iranian streets are lined with cosmetic shops, all doing brisk business. Heavily made-up women and girls are everywhere — out on the streets, in universities and places of work, at parties.
It is a reality that has not escaped the attention of the popular travel guide series, the Lonely Planet. Its guide on Iran educates tourists about Iranian women’s fondness for fashion and makeup, as well as about the popularity of nose jobs.
But where does this love for heavy makeup come from? Many women point to compulsory hejab. The basic argument goes like this: When you have to hide much of your beauty under a scarf, chador or loose-fitting manteaux, only your face remains exposed. To present this single feature to good advantage, women naturally turn to makeup.
Fars News Agency reports that Iran is the second biggest market for the cosmetics industry in the Middle East. Today, it claims, girls as young as 14 wear some type of makeup. Iran spends around $2.1 billion dollars a year on cosmetics. Between 80 and 90 percent of the market consists of products from China, Turkey and Thailand.
High Tariffs, a Boon to Smugglers
“We are in the worst possible situation when it comes to cosmetics smuggling,” Rasoul Dinarvand, Deputy Health Minister and the head of the Food and Drug Administration told Fars. “Most of the market is in the hands of smugglers. The officially imported cosmetics industry enjoys a much smaller share of the market.”
According to the Iranian Chamber of Commerce website, imports of cosmetics are subject to a 26 percent tariff. In addition, since cosmetics are considered to be non-essential products, importers pay market prices for hard currency. Add to this another eight percent in VAT.
And then there are the fakes. “There has been no progress in preventing the sale of counterfeit products,” said Mohammad Pour-Khosravani, who oversees cosmetic and health products for the High Council of Imports. “We cannot employ 50-year-old methods against these people because the financial motives are so strong. Simply passing laws does nothing for us.”
Responding to the claim that cosmetic smugglers have always had the upper hand, making it impossible for legitimate importers to compete with them, Abu Torabi, the head of Cosmetic and Health Products Importers Union, told a Tehran newspaper, “we have been appealing to the ministries of Health, Industry and Mines, and Commerce and Customs for years to reduce tariffs. There are no other ways to prevent smuggling except by reforming tariffs, because to fight smuggling you must reduce the profits — and increase the risk. Sometimes we have to wait for months before our merchandise is released from customs, while smugglers can deliver the goods in Tehran within 48 hours and make a profit of seven to eight percent.”
According to statistics provided by Iran’s Custom Bureau, in the eight months between March 21 and November 21, 2014, Iran legally imported about 3.8 metric tons of cosmetic and health products worth around $46 million. Most of the imports were from France and Turkey. But an overwhelming proportion of cosmetics available on the Iranian market are made in China — which means that smugglers are doing extremely well in this high-profit market.
Melody Khachaturian, Citizen journalist, Isfahan