One in five cigarettes and roll-ups smoked in the West is smuggled, costing shopkeepers and taxpayers £211 million a year, shocking new statistics released today show.
And now the full weight of a range of authorities – from the police to the taxman – are launching a major crackdown on the illegal tobacco trade.
The smuggled cigarettes are cheaper than legitimate ones bought from a shop, which damages the fight by health authorities against smoking.
The crackdown features a partnership between the taxman, Smokefree South West – the Government agency targeting smoking – the police, Crimestoppers, primary care trusts and council chiefs.
The South West HMRC said illegal tobacco brings criminals into local communities and into contact with children. “As well as being unregulated, illegal tobacco is often bought at ‘pocket money prices’, selling for less than half the tax-paid price of legally sold tobacco,” said south west HMRC spokesman Bob Gaiger. “This attracts younger smokers and allows those who could otherwise not afford to smoke, to maintain their habit and undermining their attempts to quit.”
Statistics showed that more than one in five smokers – or 21.4 per cent – in Wiltshire alone smoke either bootlegged, smuggled or counterfeit cigarettes. Nationally, HMRC showed the revenue lost to smuggled tobacco was £1.86 billion.
“The trade in illegal tobacco across the South West is a very real problem, one that through this partnership initiative we are tackling, but there is more still to be done,” added Mr Gaiger. “Illegal tobacco is often the first stage in a chain of illegal trades that fund criminality.
“These criminals smuggle tobacco and cigarettes illegally into the country. Some of these will be counterfeit and will have been manufactured in completely unregulated environments to be sold at knock-down prices. They do not care about the impact on local businesses, your neighbourhood or your children’s lives, targeting anyone and anywhere they can make money.”
Wiltshire’s health director Maggie Rae said: “Cigarettes and pouches of hand rolling tobacco are offered to our children at pocket money prices making it cheap and all too easy for our children to smoke and become addicted.
“The only people who benefit from this trade are the criminals who don’t care about what is in the packets they sell.
“Since illegal tobacco remains part of the range of smuggled and contraband goods traded by criminal gangs it is vital that steady, sustained pressure continues to be applied,” she added.