Government announces new strategy to tackle x-channel smuggling

Tuesday 29 October 2002

ASH news release:  immediate – 29 October 2002
The government has announced new thresholds for cross-channel shoppers – the indicative levels for cigarettes are to increase from 800 to 3200 and hand rolling tobacco from 1kg to 3kg. This means that shoppers can purchase about six months supply for their individual use with being assumed to be a bootlegger. However, since 1992 smokers have been able to bring in as much tobacco as they like as long as it is strictly for personal use.  It will remain an offence to resell any amount that has been purchased abroad at lower tax levels.  That situation is unchanged by the announcement. As well as relaxing the regime for shoppers, Customs have tightened the regime for smugglers – with more prosecutions, better intelligence, seizure of the proceeds of crime and stiffer penalties for offenders.

Perhaps surprisingly, ASH offered a cautious welcome to the move, arguing that it would actually make it easier to tackle the real bootleggers and help to give the tough policing policy at the Channel ports greater public credibility.  Clive Bates, Director of the anti-tobacco campaigning group ASH, said:

This will make it easier to identify who is a legitimate cross-channel shopper and who is a smuggler planning to sell on.  The test of the policy will be how hard Customs comes down on those bringing in more than the new limit with the obvious intention of smuggling.

The approach at Channel ports was in danger of falling into disrepute and this will restore confidence and make it easier for Customs to tackle the real problem. Life will be easier for cross-channel shopper and harder for bootleggers, and it is the bootleggers that are doing the real damage.

The move also seems to have opened the door for greater co-operation from the ferry companies in identifying persistent offenders and those making multiple journeys. At times it has seemed as though the ferry industry has been kept afloat by petty criminal activity.

Of course it’s bad for a smoker’s health to stock up on thousands of cheap cigs, but our interest is in supporting the overwhelming majority that want to stop smoking and who have no intention of visiting Belgium or France to buy tobacco.  If some smokers want to join what amounts to suicide pact we think that is sad and foolish, but we can’t stop them doing that except through persuasion and better communication of the sick reality.

Those that want cheap cigarettes rather than having a go at quitting will be paying in the long run through a shortened lifetime and cancer, emphysema, heart disease and about fifty other conditions associated with smoking, and that’s on top of the money they could save by quitting. The trip to Belgium for cheap tobacco doesn’t look quite so smart when you take all the costs into account.

ASH welcomed the government’s restated commitment to continuing to have high tobacco taxes in the UK and the government’s recognition that it is international freight smuggling that dominates (>80%) the UK black market for cigarettes.  With freight smuggling, no duty is paid anywhere and large container sized consignments make circuitous journeys to Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe before being returned to the UK disguised as some other commodity.  This is why lowering taxes will be ineffective in tackling smuggling, and why countries like Spain and Italy, which have low duty rates have large black markets.

Speech by John Healey (Economic Secretary to the Treasury) (pdf) – 29 October 2002
Contact: Clive Bates 020 7739 5902 (w) 077 6879 1237 (m) ISDN available