I've had the privilege of commanding the Scotland Yard's Serious and Organised Crime branch and saw clearly how illicit trade in cigarettes and tobacco goes beyond what some might term mere 'petty criminality'. My former colleagues in Northern Ireland and other international law enforcement agencies identified the proceeds of smuggling as an important source of terrorist funding.
I'm concerned about some of the counterproductive measures being proposed by the government, aimed at reducing smoking, with the potential to make the current criminality of illicit and counterfeit cigarettes much worse.
Government measures to reduce smoking - such as high taxes on cigarettes - have been a boon to such groups. They realise some smokers struggle to pay high-street prices, so smuggled cigarettes are sold up and down the country by touts, in council estates and car boot markets and, in some cases, by knowing shop owners who are willing buyers. Often, the sellers are protected by men of violence who threaten and intimidate trading standards and local officials. I've seen with my own eyes containers full of counterfeit cigarettes coming into this country, and I'm not talking about contraband cigarettes, the real thing just illegally imported.
But a large amount of the products sold on the black-market is not genuine. These cigarettes are cheap lookalike brands or complete fakes. Some have been shown to contain arsenic, asbestos, rat poison and other substances not fit for consumption. I'm not an advocate of smoking, but I think it's really important that consumers know what is in the products they buy, and that includes cigarettes.
It would be disastrous if the government, by introducing plain-packaging legislation, removes the simplest mechanism for the ordinary consumer to tell whether their cigarettes are counterfeit or not.
The links between organised crime, the funding of terrorism and illegal cigarette imports has been known for a long time. Drug dogs are rarely trained to scent cigarettes at borders, and the price to pay for being caught illegally importing cigarettes is not as high as class-A drugs. Studies from organisations such as Interpol and the FBI have confirmed the link between the funding of terror and cigarette smuggling. The US Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives put the combined income for Irish Republican groups at $100 million in a five-year period to 2004: and this was before the increased current high-street cigarette prices.
It would be easy to say dealing with this situation is one that just requires increased law enforcement, monitoring and intelligence operations, and that there is no connection between a potential increase in smuggling and the government's plans for plain packaging of cigarettes. But this is not the case.
First, plain packaging will be easier to counterfeit than branded packs. Once you've forged one packet with the name of the product on it, you've forged them all. Secondly, if it is easier to fake the packet, then it will be encouragement for organised crime groups to produce more and more fake tobacco to contain within them. If there is a natural barrier put on the numbers of cigarettes you can fake, because of the multiple number of brands in the marketplace that need to be counterfeited, then there is no limit put upon smugglers and organised crime groups if the carton - and content - are the same.
There's also the fact that other countries will continue to see production of legitimate, branded cigarettes. It has long been claimed by some that there is a connection between the brands on cigarette packaging and youth smoking. If this connection is proved to be correct, if the only branded cigarettes in the UK become illegal imports, then instead of the government's plans protecting children they will be driving them into the hands of organised crime to buy the branded products they desire.
The government has the chance to wind back on its rhetoric and reconsider these plans before any policy is introduced with unintended and damaging consequences. This is, after all, only a consultation - not a certain plan to introduce such a policy.
I think it's really important that before there are any major changes to the law that the public are aware of just what a serious conduit counterfeit cigarettes are for serious and organised crime, and how plain packaging is simply going to make it easier for these groups to operate.