Will criminals cash in on plain tobacco packaging?

Some experts warn plain packaging could be a boon for criminals - but are they right?

Updated: 
Call for Non-branded cigarette packaging

Ireland has passed a new law requiring cigarettes to be sold in standard, plain packets.

However, while the sentiments behind the law are laudable, there are warnings that it is going to make it easier for criminals to cash in on black market tobacco. Now the UK has pledged to adopt standard packs from May 2016, and some are concerned that we could face similar risks here too.

The idea behind the law is to strip away the positive branding of colourful or fashionable packets, and replace them with dull packets featuring images showing the consequences of smoking.

It's a groundbreaking move (Ireland is the second country in the world to introduce standard packs - after Australia). It's designed to discourage smoking - particularly among young people - which could dramatically reduce the number of smoking-related deaths.

Cashing in

However, there are warnings that it will make it easier for criminals to produce counterfeit cigarettes, and therefore increase the money they can make from the illegal sales of fakes. A report in the Sun claimed that in Ireland criminals are switching from importing fake cigarettes to importing tobacco - and making their own fakes. It highlighted that an illegal cigarette factory was discovered in South Armargh two weeks ago.

This is a more lucrative business, and the article estimated, for example, that it could make an extra £22 million a year for the IRA - which it says is closely associated with the trade in Ireland.

Concerns that plain packaging could lead to more illegal cigarettes are backed up by a report by Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He said that in Australia after the introduction of plain packaging in 2011, seizures of illicit tobacco between 2011/12 and 2012/13 rose by 60%, and that 183 tonnes of tobacco and 200 million cigarettes were seized.

In the UK

In January, the UK government pledged to introduce standard packs by May 2016. This is a huge success for anti-smoking campaigners, but some politicians are concerned that criminals could benefit from the move. MP for Ashford, Damian Green, has spoken out against it, saying: "Standardised packaging will make it easier for counterfeiters to produce and sell counterfeit cigarettes. Australia has seen the illicit trade in tobacco reach record levels."

However, this needs to be tempered with the fact that HMRC has no concerns about the effect of changing the law on criminal activity.

It produced a report stating that: "We have seen no evidence to suggest the introduction of standardised packaging will have a significant impact on the overall size of the illicit market to prompt a change in the activity of organised crime groups."

It agreed it could change: "the mechanics of the fraud and the composition of the illicit market". In other words people would move from importing fakes to making their own. However, it added: "existing counter-measures in HMRC's tobacco strategy to tackle illicit whites and counterfeit products would be applicable to mitigate any changes to these existing rules."

Meanwhile, the independent report produced for the government by Dr Cyril Chantler last year investigated this issue. He visited Australia to see what impact the change had on the levels of crime there, and concluded that there was no indication of a rise in illicit tobacco in Australia, and that only a very small proportion of illicit products seized were in plain packing - indicating that criminals have not seen any particular benefits from the change.

The government isn't concerned, and customs seems confident they can deal with any risks. But what do you think? Are the benefits of standard packages worth the potential dangers? Let us know in the comments.



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