The Hearld Scotland
9 Aug 2011
- DIRTY HABIT: Money made from selling black market tobacco and cigarettes, like those seized at a Glasgow market, is ploughed straight back into criminal activities, the authorities say. Picture: Mark Gibson
Now, in Scotland, cigarettes are increasingly linked to organised crime through the black market, according to a new survey.
More than one in 10 cigarettes smoked in some parts of the country were sold illegally, figures published yesterday suggest.
Illicit sales of cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco are thought to cost the UK around £2 billion a year in lost tax as smokers seek to dodge some of the highest levies and retail prices in the world.
Cheap imports from other EU countries, particularly Poland and Portugal, where taxes are far lower, are frequently touted for sale in pubs and markets around Scotland for an average price of between £2.50 and £3 for a packet of 20 – less than half the high-street price.
Research carried out on behalf of tobacco magnate Philip Morris International – manufacturer of Marlboro – found that 10% of smokers in Glasgow bought their cigarettes from illegal tobacco traders. In Paisley the figure was 14%.
In both Aberdeen and East Kilbride the rate was 6%, falling to 5% in Edinburgh and 4% in Dundee.
The figures were estimated from an industry-organised collection of random samples of empty discarded cigarette packets.
Researchers spent a month in each of the towns at the end of last year looking in rubbish bins and pubs for the litter.
PMI, which funded the research, said the method was “a quick way to reveal the proportion of illegal cigarettes in a specific location”.
John Whiting, head of criminal investigations at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), said: “Tobacco smuggling is organised crime on a global scale, with huge profits ploughed straight back into the criminal underworld, feeding activities such as drug dealing, people smuggling and fraud.
“Purchasing cheap cigarettes without the duty paid on them means trading with criminals and under-mining honest businesses.
“Organised criminal gangs will deal in any commodity: alcohol, tobacco, rebated oils, drugs, stolen goods, illegal immigrants and human trafficking – whatever makes them money and allows them to launder their criminal profits.
“Many people who buy a few cans of lager or dodgy cigarettes do not realise the scale of criminality behind the sellers they are dealing with.” Global tobacco firms, including PMI, have previously been accused by anti-smoking groups, including Ash Scotland, of scaremongering over the illegal trade to deflect regulatory attention from the industry.
But PMI said yesterday that illicit sales were a serious and growing problem. There is also a real concern that young people and those living in more socially disadvantaged groups –where smoking rates are historically higher – are most likely to buy the cheap tobacco, weakening anti- smoking education.
In May last year, an illegal tobacco “factory” was uncovered by customs officers during a raid on a house in Glasgow. More than 198kg of tobacco worth about £38,000 in unpaid duty and VAT was seized from the property in Govanhill. About 17,600 smuggled cigarettes were also recovered.
Counterfeit tobacco, a low-quality and sometimes highly dangerous product often brought in from the Far East, is also changing the face of tobacco market.
Strathclyde Police recently seized 4000 pouches of counterfeit tobacco on the M77 with an estimated street value of £50,440. It was packaged in counterfeit 50g Golden Virginia pouches carrying small Benelux tax stamps to give a genuine appearance.
Open trading in illicit tobacco at Glasgow Barrowland market was recently exposed in a BBC Scotland investigation.
ASH Scotland chief executive Sheila Duffy said: “Illegal tobacco is a genuine problem but we need to treat the claims made by the tobacco industry very sceptically because there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors involved on their part.”