There has been a spate of stories over the last few months about police raids and seizure of counterfeit cigarettes and illegally smuggled tobacco, noted for their increasing regularity, albeit low profile, as well as the increasing scale of the hauls.
Illicit cigarettes aren’t as sexy a topic as drugs; the truth is, the well-worn image of the drug dealer, from Colombian cartel to kid on a sink-estate, comes with an element of danger, of menace, that makes the subject far more compelling than the humble, dodgy cigarette pedlar. But it is a growing phenomenon, increasing in gravitas and value, and, possibly, something we should start to worry about more than we do the kingpins of Latin America.
An article in the Daily Caller has highlighted the links the illegal cigarette trade has beyond the already dark world of organised crime. Citing the examples of recent finds in Nottinghamshire and Wales, the site claims it is able to link these back to both hostile governments – specifically the nuke-happy North Korean regime – and terrorist groups, such as the Taliban and Hezbollah.
The effects of this are obvious. Directly funding hostile organisations is clearly negative for society: Hezbollah, in just one smuggling operation rumbled by US authorities, allegedly stood to make $8m. The trade also has the double-edged effect of robbing treasuries whilst funding enemies. The British taxpayer loses an estimated £2bn a year in lost income from illegal cigarettes; for the wider EU, it is £10bn.
The thing is, it isn’t the coffers of governments we should worry about. They, after all, are the ones who have allowed this industry to grow, through heavy regulation of legal tobacco. Legislation, price hikes and taxation of this nature disadvantages one group of smokers above all others: poor smokers. And it is poor smokers who drive the black market in cigarettes.
Rather than have the desired effect of getting people to give up smoking, when presented with an expensive habit, many people turn to a cheaper option if it is available. Unable to be regulated, illegal cigarettes are more harmful to your health than their legal counterparts: the tobacco is of a poorer quality, and contains all sorts of substances that would never make it into regular cigarettes. Yet why should poorer people be priced out, goes the theory? And so, they purchase the cheaper stuff.
The response from those who would happily see smoking cast into the darkness would be, of course, to do just that, and eradicate smoking altogether to combat the problem. But as Rob Lyons said in Spiked recently, it just won’t happen, because people like smoking, and that is what has led to an expanding black market.
So, is the alternative to row back on the punitive measures taken against tobacco companies? It won’t improve the nation’s health, but neither do the gangsters and terrorists. And they’re making money from it.