…”A health time bomb” is how BBC1’s Panorama described the cigarette counterfeiting crisis facing Britain, in last night’s programme “Smoking and the Bandits“. The scale of the illicit trade on tobacco is eye-watering – an estimated £4billion in lost tax revenue in the UK every year according to Panorama – though I have seen much bigger figures elsewhere.
The reason why the counterfeit tobacco trade has mushroomed in the UK is obvious… “80% of the cigarette price is tax, making our country the second most expensive place in the world to buy cigarettes“. And so the proliferation of knock-off cigarettes and rolling tobacco – selling at less than half the price of legitimate tobacco – has reached epidemic levels. Illicit tobacco is now widely available everywhere…. open air markets, car boot sales, newsagents, pubs, factories and universities up and down the country.
And its not just the lost revenue to the tax man that should concern us. It’s the fact that the trade is no longer being run by Dell boy down the road with his little white van and entrepreneurial flair. The trade is now run by large well organised international crime gangs using their gargantuan tobacco profits to fund god-knows what else. One container of illicit goods costing £100,000 returns the gangs a profit of £1million. This is now BIG business for BIG CRIME syndicates.
And if you don’t care what the gangs do with the money they make, and even less about the loss to the tax coffers, then you might be be concerned by what is actually IN these counterfeit products. A counterfeit pouch of Golden Virginia purchased by the Panorama team had 30 times the levels of lead found in a pouch of legitimate Virginia – not to mention the humongous levels of cadmium and arsenic found in other fake tobacco examined. This is the “health time bomb” Panorama refer to – let’s not worry about the nicotine right now…….
So how to stop this trade ? Well, the government has already announced an increase in spend for HMRC to stop tax evasion and fraud. How much of the increase will be directed toward stopping illicit tobacco sales is unclear. What ever it is it won’t be enough to catch the veritable tsunami of illicit tobacco that is pouringinto the country (go watch the programme if you doubt me). So the answer to cutting the illicit tobacco trade hardly seems to lie with more HRMC men and their waggy-tail sniffer dogs.
We need a big idea to tackle the illicit tobacco trade – and fast!
One “big idea” staring us all in the face of course is to CUT the duty on legitimate tobacco – to remove the incentive for punters to buy the cheaper alternatives full of who-knows what heavy metals an poisons. Cutting tobacco tax would almost certainly increase legitimate sales at the expense of the illegal sales.
Raising tax on tobacco in recent years has, I suggest, not “cut smoking” as the health-fanatics would have us believe. It has driven it underground. Diverting the cash from tax coffers to crime gangs.
Another “big idea” would be for government to liaise with tobacco companies (yes that would involve sitting in the same room) to find ways to make it much more difficult to counterfeit their products (the vast majority of people purchasing the tobacco have no idea it is fake – but assume it has been brought over from elsewhere in Europe) .
So what is the Coalition Government’s big idea? Oh I know to announce tomorrow (on “No Smoking” Day) the introduction of plain packaging on LEGITIMATE tobacco products. That’ll work (not!).
Criminal gangs must think Christmas has come early. Lets make it 100% easier to sell tax free poison-filled knock-offs and make the cost of the fakery even cheaper – no more complicated forgery to pay for. I can almost hear the whoops of delight from here.
This looks, for all the world, like another government apology in the waiting. What will it be this time… “a misunderstanding”…a “rethink after new evidence came to light”…”a matter of unintended consequences”…
…The best one of course will be the plaintive cry that “we were only trying to save the kids”… Well chaps if you really want to “save the kids” then find a way of stopping the disgusting lead…arsenic..cadmium filled alternatives from wiping out the legitimate stuff that looks like candy by comparison. Because I can tell you that kids are not going to smoke any less as a result of your action tomorrow and if there are two cigarettes that look identical and one is half the price of the other we all know which one the kids are going to buy. ….Oh and if your only answer is that you have “increased funding to HMRC” then you deserve everything that is going to be thrown at you.
Given you seem a bit short on quality PR advise right now let me help.. HOLD OFF … Think long term, not short term. Go for real success, not tomorrow’s headline..Think about what is the effective measure, not what is the easiest measure. Mostly – be very clear of the consequences of what you are about to do… and if you are in any doubt…hit that pause button now.