FIGURES published last month revealed that half of all smokers in Scotland have purchased illegal tobacco products.
Research conducted by JTI found 52% of smokers have purchased illicit tobacco including counterfeit and foreign tobacco products, while one in four said they had been offered illegal tobacco in the past year.
Speaking to Scottish Grocer, JTI’s anti-illegal trade operations director Steve Wilkins, said the findings were broadly in line with figures across the UK – and showed that counterfeit tobacco is on the rise.
“The actual figures in different areas show between 52% and 62% of smokers have purchased illegal tobacco,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to gauge the breakdown between non-domestic duty paid and counterfeit, but what we can say is that of the JTI-branded products that were purchased, all but one were counterfeit. And counterfeiting is on the rise across the EU.”
Wilkins said that plain packaging regulations introduced this year had made things much easier for counterfeiters.
“I call it the ‘Counterfeiter’s Charter’,” he said.
“Rather than producing lots of different packs and patterns and countermeasures to try to foil the counterfeiter, manufacturers now can only produce one blank package. And we are aware that counterfeit plain packaging has been seized in Scotland.”
While most illegal tobacco products have, in recent years, been manufactured in such places as the United Arab Emirates, South East Asia and Poland, and smuggled in, Wilkins said more was now being made in the UK.
“We are seeing more production in mainland UK, particularly of RYO tobacco, using tobacco smuggled into the country, and counterfeit pouches posted in from China,” he said.
“This is where we get more of a cottage industry, where all they need is a cement mixer, brush and shovel. The end result is we’re finding items in the tobacco such as plastic, rat droppings, human faeces etc, because they’re effectively sweeping up whatever’s on the floor to put into the pouches.”
One especially concerning aspect he pointed to from the latest Scottish study was a rise in wholesale purchases.
“We have identified dishonest retailers, street sellers, people selling in public houses, that’s quite consistent,” he said. “But we’re also now seeing this element of large quantities available for cheaper prices. The cheapest is £3 for a 50g pouch of tobacco as opposed to £20 for a genuine one. That’s huge.”
The evidence, he said, points to a well-organised criminal infrastructure making use of established transportation and distribution networks. And for the agencies tasked with breaking this industry up, the challenge is massive.
“The attraction for the criminal is there’s high profit margin with very little in the way of sanctions,” said Wilkins.
“A lot of them are financial penalties rather than custodial sentences. The policy makers need to ensure that there is a deterrent for organised crime. These are organised criminals making a lot of money out of communities.
“I was in the police for 33 years and I am dealing with the same people that I dealt with for drug-smuggling, human trafficking, firearms trafficking and also with links to funding terrorism.”
Furthermore, with over 20% of smokers saying they would consider purchasing illicit tobacco despite knowing it is illegal, Wilkins said it was vital that consumers were educated about the reality of the industry.
“When a consumer buys a pack of cigarettes for £3, that could be funding the bullet that’s fired at one of our boys and girls in the theatre of conflict overseas. I think we’ve got to help people make that connection,” he said.
To retailers, his message was: “Don’t get drawn into it. Don’t get involved in the illegal trade. If you are found and convicted you are likely to lose your business.”
Anyone with information on illicit tobacco in their area is encouraged to call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.