Spotlight on the tobacco industry’s role in smuggling

The UK and other countries must do more to stop the illegal trade and smuggling of tobacco products.

The dangers of smoking have been known for decades, with undeniably strong evidence linking the habit to cancer, heart disease, lung conditions such as emphysema and more. In many countries around the world we’ve seen bans on cigarette advertising and heavy tobacco taxation, as well as smoke-free legislation aimed at protecting public health.

Tobacco is a uniquely dangerous and highly addictive product, which prematurely kills half of all its long-term users and is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer in the world. But despite the efforts of health campaigners and governments, smoking remains a major global issue. And, unfortunately, their good intentions seem to be thwarted at every turn by the actions of the tobacco industry itself.

Encouraging smuggling

Many countries around the world have legislation that taxes and controls the sale of tobacco products, as well as pricing strategies that help to reduce their deadly toll. But these laws are constantly undermined by smugglers, bringing in untaxed products. And although border controls exist, in the case of the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs there’s evidence that  tobacco smugglers are evading attempts to crack down on this trade. 

While picking on the failings of government agencies is easy, there is another part to the picture. One area that appears to be operating under the radar is the tobacco industry’s continuing role in tobacco smuggling, which hampers efforts to tackle the practice. The tale of tobacco smuggling into the UK is a good example of what’s going on. 

Cigarette smuggling into the UK hit a peak in 2000-2001, and has been falling ever since, despite the misleading and unsubstantiated protestations of tobacco companies. This drop in smuggled tobacco in the UK has coincided with a decade of implementing more comprehensive tobacco control measures. So the idea that measures designed to reduce smoking, such as standardised packaging, will increase smuggling simply doesn’t add up.

At its peak, most large seizures of contraband tobacco were genuine UK brands that had been exported overseas by tobacco companies but then smuggled back into the UK. Following government reports and court cases, tobacco manufacturers agreed to do more to combat untaxed tobacco coming into the country. This noble sentiment was later reinforced by legislation.

In particular the tobacco companies agreed to focus on “oversupply” – supplying excessive amounts of tobacco products to certain countries, which then get smuggled out. For example, in 1997, the tiny European state of Andorra was supplied with 3.1 billion cigarettes – equivalent to every Andorran smoking seven packs a day. Unsurprisingly, most of these ended up back in the UK. And in 2009, it was reported that all the four big manufacturers in the UK have over-supplied the Ukraine, fuelling a $2bn black market that reached across the EU.

“Crooks or stupid”?

For example, the latest estimates from 2011 suggest that the total supply of hand-rolling tobacco to some countries outstrips legitimate local demand by nearly three-fold.

This is deeply frustrating for both the government and public health officials. During an investigation into tobacco smuggling by the Public Accounts Committee in 2002, the now Chancellor, George Osborne MP, said in exasperation to senior executives of Imperial Tobacco:

“One comes to the conclusion that you are either crooks or you are stupid, and you do not look very stupid. How can you possibly have sold cigarettes to Latvia, Kaliningrad, Afghanistan and Moldova in the expectation that those were just going to be used by the indigenous population or exported legitimately to neighbouring countries, and not in the expectation they would be smuggled?”

Global concerns

But it’s not just the UK that is affected by this plague – it’s a global issue, with serious implications. For example, Japan Tobacco International is under official investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, for its smuggling activities in the Middle East. Allegedly, cigarettes were sold to a black-listed associate of the brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The suspicion is that these cigarettes are either being used to pay military salaries or being sold at a higher price, generating profit that could fund Assad’s regime.

There are also reports that British American Tobacco’s (BAT) sales agent in the Horn of Africa is being pursued by officials in Djibouti, accused of secretly transporting cigarettes into the country from Somalia without paying duty. The same person has been issued with a ‘red notice’ by Interpol, following accusations of involvement in a terrorist attack. BAT has apparently refused to cut its connection to the individual and still uses him as an agent in other countries.

There is no doubt that tobacco causes thousands upon thousands of avoidable cancer deaths around the globe every year. And as the world’s leading independent cancer research organisation, Cancer Research UK has a duty to bang the drum for tobacco control as loudly as we can.

We urge the UK government to sign and ratify the UN’s Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products as soon as possible, and would like to see all other countries follow suit. It’s a tough and dirty fight, but by working together as a global community, we can end the stranglehold of tobacco on our health.

Dr Kat Arney is Science Information Manager at Cancer Research UK – the largest charitable funder of cancer research in the world – and writes for the charity’s Science Update Blog. Follow Cancer Research UK on Twitter:@CR_UK and on Facebook.