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Plain Packaging Will Create a Fertile Ground for Tobacco Smuggling

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Earlier this year, a group of ex-Scotland Yard detectives and customs officers wrote to a national newspaper with serious concerns regarding government plans to introduce plain packaging for tobacco. They explained that this proposal would significantly increase the smuggling of counterfeit tobacco that research shows will fund more serious organised criminal activity including armed robbery, drug crime, people trafficking, money laundering and arms trading.

In my experience, this is no exaggeration. In fact the proceeds of counterfeit or non-duty-paid tobacco has in part funded paramilitary gangs and research shows Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas as well.

I'm not a psychologist. I'm not a doctor and I have never smoked. I support the government in its attempts to reduce smoking. I just ask that any initiative is well planned and well researched. I am an ex-police officer, and I have dedicated 30 years of my life to policing crime on the streets of Northern Ireland, where organised crime gangs and terrorist groups turned smuggling tobacco into a multi-million pound black market business, funding prostitution and drug trafficking. In addition to the challenges law enforcement agencies face trying to tackle tobacco smuggling, I am in agreement with the group that plain packaging is likely to make that task harder, while making it easier for the criminals.

I therefore read with interest the latest HMRC figures, released on the 17th October, showing the cost of tobacco smuggling to the UK in lost tax revenue at £2.9 billion in 2011, down from £3.1 billion in 2010.

As a Former Assistant Chief Constable, Head of Organised Crime, I know this will be down to the commendable effort of the police and border agency staff. However, planned budget cuts and the plain packaging proposals risk damaging this clear and significant progress.

There are 65 billion black market cigarettes coming into the EU each year. That is the equivalent of 8000 forty-foot shipping containers.

In the UK there have been a number of high profile tobacco seizures in the press recently. On 26th November it was reported in local press that Border Force officers at the Port of Hull seized 5.7 million cigarettes. Three weeks earlier a haul of more than 10 million fake cigarettes were found at the Port in Immingham.

In October statistics released to the press showed smuggling was on the increase and that 16.5% of all tobacco smoked in the UK is smuggled. Alongside this, recent news reports about an empty pack survey conducted by MS intelligence in 2012 demonstrated that the problem is still very real at a local level - in Birmingham one in three of all cigarettes smoked were from the black market, in London its one in four.

Tobacco smuggling is a multi-billion pound industry and it will continue to attract sophisticated and organised criminal gangs. The question is - do we understand the impact that plain packaging will have on organized crime and is plain packaging the best way to tackle the harm caused by smoking?

The UK is an island with multiple points of entry from across Europe and Scandinavia. We simply don't have the resources to police our borders all the time so we rely on intelligence led investigations. Between 2011 and 2012 the UK Border Agency spent £524 million and needed nearly 8,000 staff to combat the problem of smuggled goods in the UK. Responding to budget cuts of 23% it plans to shed 5,200 posts by 2015. At the same time the UK police budget is being cut by £1.3 billion by 2014/15.

If plain packaging goes ahead, counterfeiters who currently have to copy hundreds of different cigarette pack styles, will instead have just one. It will make the production process quicker. It will also make intelligence led investigations even more tricky as communities and retailers find it more difficult to tell apart the counterfeit from the genuine product. This is particularly true in some communities where, in my experience selling illicit tobacco is already seen as a 'Robin Hood' crime.

With fewer resources available and reduced intelligence, smuggled tobacco could slip down the police priority list given all the other priorities. Forces are likely to concentrate on drugs, prostitution etc. so therefore smuggled tobacco could be ignored.

Has the government considered the full impact of plain packaging on the UK tobacco black market? The government has an opportunity to look at Australia and see how PP has worked there. The UK is very different to Australia but it may be worth waiting. With almost £3 billion lost in tax revenue in 2011-2012 we need to assess the full impact of this regulation.

Recent figures show a decrease in the number of smuggled cigarettes, but we cannot be complacent. We need to understand the impact plain packaging will have. Unless these questions are answered first, the potential introduction of plain packaging jeopardises the hard work, collaboration and individual bravery shown by our law enforcement agencies and unwittingly will create a fertile ground for tobacco smuggling.