Bitcoin: Anatomy of a transaction

Michael’s Auto Plaza general manager Eugene Rubinchuk stands in the lot of his family’s business in East Greenbush, N.Y. The car dealership accepts bitcoin and several other digital currencies. (AP)
Updated 27 February 2018

Bitcoin: Anatomy of a transaction

NEW YORK: Bitcoins can buy you a TAG Heuer watch, a cross-country flight or a meatball marinara sub.
Purchases with bitcoin and other digital currencies remain rare relative to cash and credit cards. Many bitcoin holders value it more as an investment than a day-to-day currency.
And the complex workings behind the notoriously volatile currency can be off-putting to neophytes. What are the fees? Are there taxes? How do you spend a currency that can devalue dramatically between ordering appetizers and paying the check?
Buying with bitcoin can be as easy as tapping your phone, though there are some cautions. A look at a single bitcoin transaction, the sale of a 2017 Subaru from an upstate New York car dealer to a buyer from Virginia, offers some insights into the currency’s uses.
IN BUSINESS WITH BITCOIN
Eugene Rubinchuk didn’t get into digital currency for the anonymity or to strike a blow against centralized banking. He was just looking for more business.
Rubinchuk and his father, who goes by “Mike the Russian,” already ham it up in local TV commercials for Michael’s Auto Plaza wearing furry hats. Digital currency is just another potential edge.
“It’s just a way to reach customers we normally couldn’t reach, that normally wouldn’t think of us,” he said.
The cars and truck on the lot near Albany are priced in US dollars. Rubinchuk simply signed up for one of the services that allowed him to accept digital currencies if a bitcoin buyer came along.
CASHING IN CRYPTOCURRENCY
Jonathan Cypert got into bitcoin early and made out well.
In 2011, he read about a 2-year-old currency skyrocketing in value and soon invested $2,000 in computers to “mine” bitcoins for about a year and a half. That’s the complicated process that rewards tech-savvy participants for verifying bitcoin transactions in its public ledger, called the blockchain.
When he started, a single bitcoin was worth around $2.50. By the time he was ready to buy a used, low-mileage Subaru for his wife, a bitcoin was worth over $14,000.
The 32-year-old Virginia resident sees his bitcoin cache as a nest egg to tide him over after he retires from the military. (Wary of attracting scammers, Cypert requested that his hometown and military branch not be made public). The purchase gave him a chance to recoup his investment many times over with a fraction of his cache.
“At this point it’s like, why not?” Cypert said. “I might as well realize some of that gain.”
BITCOIN BARGAINING
Rubinchuk and Cypert talked on the phone on the evening of Jan. 2 and settled on a sale price on the Subaru WRX STI of $34,640.
Then they had to agree on what that equaled in bitcoins judging by the exchange rates that moment. Tracking bitcoin prices on their screens, the pair agreed to proceed with one bitcoin equaling about $14,755. Cypert sent 2.34790481 bitcoins from his personal electronic wallet to the public address of Rubinchuk’s wallet.
Cypert also paid a fee of about $3.50, which goes to reward miners and keep the system running.
Then Rubinchuk watched bitcoin’s value go up and down as he waited to convert his digital money into dollars.
BLOCKCHAIN BLUES
Rubinchuk wanted to convert quickly in case bitcoin’s value suddenly dropped against the dollar, costing him money. The fear is well-founded, since bitcoin’s value can gain or lose more than $400 in a half-hour.
But the digital currency service he uses required him to wait for multiple confirmations from the bitcoin network before he could convert it into dollars, a process that can be affected by network congestion and other factors. Rubinchuk recalls waiting about 30 to 45 minutes.
“I’m sitting there on pins and needles checking every five minutes if it’s available,” he said.
Rubinchuk converted the sale into dollars with bitcoin just slightly below where it was at the time of the sale earlier that evening. He made about $7 less than the sale price.
The money was in his business’s bank account within 48 hours.
Rubinchuk soon after signed up for a separate merchant account through another provider that assesses him a 1 percent fee on all transactions, insulating him from short-term volatility. He compares it favorably to credit card fees that run 2 to 3 percent for merchants.
KEEPING IT LEGAL
Digital currencies are notoriously used by criminals to transfer funds anonymously. But Rubinchuk told the tax collector about this transaction.
In a standard IRS form for cash payments over $10,000, he reported the money he received, from whom it came and the fact that it originated “via bitcoin.”
Cypert avoided sales tax under a federal law covering service members that lets him retain his official residency in Alaska, which does not have a sales tax.
But he will pay taxes on a long-term capital gain.
YOUR TIME MAY VARY
Bitcoin miner fees have dropped markedly this year, and advocates say congestion issues are being solved by new technologies. Rubinchuk waited about 15 minutes to make a dollar exchange last week for his second bitcoin sale, a 2016 Hyundai Elantra.
And recently in Hillsboro, Oregon, Jeff Hanzlik bought $288 worth of marijuana-growing supplies from a store in a transaction that took a few minutes to finalize. He transmitted 0.03305451 in bitcoins from his phone, which read a code on the merchant’s tablet. The same phone app allowed Hanzlik to choose to pay about a quarter in fees.
“Once you understand what this technology is and this genie’s out of the bottle, you’re not going to have any choice but to be using it in the future,” Hanzlik said.
But the bitcoin network at this stage is still not suited to smaller, everyday transactions, said Christian Catalini, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Cryptoeconomics Lab.
“If you’re thinking about paying for coffee in bitcoin, that’s not what it’s good at right now,” he said. “Things can change.”


INTERVIEW: Philip Morris International mideast chief on using hi-tech to progress toward a smoke-free future

Updated 18 August 2019

INTERVIEW: Philip Morris International mideast chief on using hi-tech to progress toward a smoke-free future

  • Tarkan Demirbas tells Arab News how smart technology will woo 9 million Gulf smokers and reduce risk

Alongside politics and religion, there is one other dinner party subject virtually guaranteed to push people to opposing extremes: Smoking.

In much of the world — especially the West but increasingly in the Middle East and other emerging markets — tobacco has been marginalized to the point where smokers feel shunned and lonely in many social environments, banished to pavements or poorly ventilated kiosks in airports.

After a series of multi-billion dollar lawsuits around the globe for the undoubted bad effects smoking has on health, Big Tobacco — the giant multinational companies that made billions out of the nicotine habit but neglected to say exactly how bad it was — is nowhere near as big as it once was.

All of which leaves Tarkan Demirbas with something of a challenge. He is vice president for the Middle East of one of the biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International (PMI).
Think Lucky Strike and the Marlboro Cowboy, legends of the industry and of marketing before grim, litigious reality overtook
the business.

BIO

BORN • 1968, Erzurum, Turkey.

EDUCATION • Bogazici University BSc Industrial engineering. • University of West Georgia, MBA.

CAREER  • Senior management positions at PMI in Hungary, Colombia, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland. • Vice President Middle East.

Demirbas is on message for the new anti-tobacco era. “There is no doubt that the best way to reduce the risks of smoking is to not smoke or use any nicotine product at all,” he said recently at an event in Dubai’s Capital Club, an oasis of tobacco-friendliness in the anti-smoking desert of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

On the surface, that seems a strange line from somebody who for the past 15 years has been promoting PMI’s products around the world, from southeast Asia through Budapest and on to Bogota with a stint at PMI’s Swiss HQ along the way.

But it coincides with a new direction PMI has taken. The new buzz-phrase in the company is “a smoke-free future.”

PMI launched the initiative with a “commitment and ambition to replace cigarettes as soon as possible with better alternatives to smoking for the millions of men and women who would otherwise continue to smoke.”

That might sound like turkeys voting for Christmas, but there is a sound business logic, as Demirbas explained. “The reality is that the vast majority of smokers simply do not quit. Even the World Health Organization’s own predictions forecast that there will continue to be more than 1 billion smokers by the year 2025,” he said.

“This is why a growing number of experts believe that public health policies should not be based solely on discouraging initiation and encouraging cessation, but need to leverage the potential of scientifically substantiated smoke-free products for the benefit of smokers and public health,” he added.

Technology is key to the campaign, and the product that PMI has come up with is IQOS. The Dubai event marked its regional launch. Imagine a slim mobile phone with a stubby cigarette sucking out of one end, encased it in a stylish carrying case-cum-charger, and you have an idea of IQOS.

Unlike other electronic smoking devices which vaporize nicotine juice, avoiding the harmful effects of the pathogens produced by burning tobacco, IQOS stays with the weed but does not burn it.

By heating tobacco sticks — called Heets — that look like mini-cigarettes to 350 degrees Celsius, the nicotine that smokers crave is released, but the tobacco is not burnt. Demirbas cites respected scientific sources as well as PMI’s own research indicating that 95 percent of the harmful by-products of tobacco are avoided.

Amid jokes that the Marlboro Cowboy would find it hard to use IQOS and ride his horse at the same time, nicotine-hooked cigarette smokers at the event said the result was pretty close to the “real thing.”

There is potentially a big market to go for, globally as well as regionally. Worldwide, some 150 million people use PMI’s tobacco products, still overwhelmingly traditional cigarettes. By 2025, he aims to get 40 million of those onto heated tobacco products like IQOS.

“This year, our priority is to go deeper into existing launch markets. We are encouraged by the results to date, including that there approximately 8 million smokers who have completely abandoned cigarettes and switched to IQOS. Japan is the best example of IQOS’ success, where we have achieved nearly 17 percent of the national share of the market,” he said.

IQOS is currently in nearly 50 markets, including Japan, Korea, Canada, a number of European countries such as Germany, the UK and Spain, as well as Russia, Ukraine and Colombia.

PMI passed a significant milestone in its campaign to go global with IQOS when the American Federal Drug Administration authorized IQOS and other variants. It will market its products in the US in partnership with Altria, the big investor which has made a commitment to the “smoke-free future” with multibillion dollar funding of Juul, the market leader in the worldwide vaping craze.

 “There are 40 million American men and women who smoke. Some of them will quit, but most won’t, and for them IQOS offers a smoke-free alternative to continued smoking,” Demirbas said.

Progress towards smoke freedom remains elusive in China, the world’s biggest market, where PMI markets Marlboro and in turn promotes traditional Chinese tobacco brands around the world.

The UAE joined the list of countries heading smoke-free last year when an IQOS stand appeared in Dubai International Airport’s duty free section. The UAE was ambivalent about the value of trying to lure smokers off tobacco and onto safer products, with the Emirates’ health authorities warning against the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices. 

But the IQOS airport stand was a sign of a change of heart, and was followed by public pronouncements that vaping would also be made legal. Users in the UAE had previously resorted to some pretty furtive measures to get their nicotine fix, but non-tobacco nicotine products appeared to be here to stay, judged by the large numbers of people seen sucking on devices in many outdoor public places.

After the UAE launch, non-cigarette nicotine is going mainstream. The Heet sticks will be on sale for around DH20 (SR20) per pack — roughly the same as a pack of Marlboro — in most traditional smoking shops, while the devices — retailing at around Dh250 — will be sold in Carrefour supermarkets and, eventually, branded flagship stores.

Demirbas sees the UAE as a testing ground for expansion into other Middle Eastern markets, with Saudi Arabia high on the list of targets. PMI already knows there is an appetite for its device in the Kingdom from the large numbers of Saudi citizens buying them at Dubai airport.

At the airport, they have to present national ID cards or passports as proof of age — 18 is commonly the age limit for buying tobacco products in the Gulf region — as well as making a declaration that they are already smokers who wish to quit cigarettes. “I stress that we are trying to convert existing smokers, not trying to get anybody started on nicotine,” Demirbas said.

“From a public health standpoint, we see great potential for reduced risk products in Saudi Arabia. In our view, it is important to set the right regulatory framework to ensure companies adhere to best practices and comply with local legislation with the adult consumers of these products in mind, particularly as alternative forms of nicotine consumption are being recognized in leading global markets, including Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to convert all the 9 million adult smokers across the GCC, who would not otherwise quit, to IQOS,” he added.

PMI faces significant competition in its mission. Juul, the trendy but controversial device that has grabbed a big slice of the global market as the “iPhone of the vaping business.” Several other vaping products already have a foothold and a cachet that could be challenging for PMI.

At the Capital Club, the test audience for the IQOS launch was a mixed band of cigarette and vape users who gave the new product serious consideration. Some were sold on it straight away, others said they would give it a try and were gifted samples by PMI. The stylish look of the new product was a big selling point for the tech-style savvy consumers.

Others were put off by the charging process that has to be carried everywhere and used between smokes. One complained that the taste was simply too similar to the cigarettes he had been trying to kick for years.

As Big Tobacco seeks to reposition itself in the new anti-smoking age, the multibillion dollar nicotine industry will always be controversial. Maybe IQOS will be the hi-tech product that helps millions finally kick the smoking habit. Demirbas hopes so.

“We’ve invested $6 billion in it. It’s the most advanced technology there is,” he said.