Tackling Tobacco Smuggling – Government strategy good on investment but lacks clear outcomes, says ASH

Wednesday 27 April 2011

The new Government strategy launched today with increased funding for tackling tobacco smuggling is a positive step forward. [1] However, ASH and the public health community are concerned that no objectives have been set for the reduction in smuggling to be achieved in return for this new investment. ASH is also concerned about the government’s proposals for extensive collaboration with the tobacco industry. [2]

ASH welcomes in particular the following elements of the strategy:
•  The additional £917m investment on tackling organised crime, tax evasion and avoidance, including tobacco smuggling, over the 3 years of the Spending Review period;
• An increase in resources to target and tackle the organised criminals behind the fraud;
• New powers of assessment and penalties and a commitment to pursue proceeds of crime to deter offending and prevent re-offending;
• A reduction in the minimum indicative levels of tobacco for EU travellers; [3]
• Support for negotiations to develop a new international protocol to fight illicit trade in tobacco products in 2012;
• A new working protocol with Trading Standards Services to combat the sale and supply of illicit tobacco products; and
• A continued commitment to publish annual estimates of the illicit market share and key information (for example, seizure and prosecution statistics).

ASH is pleased that the Tackling Tobacco Smuggling plan includes proposals to work with civil society on ways to deal with the problem. However, ASH is concerned about HMRC’s proposals to work with the tobacco industry and believes the strategy should make explicit reference to the government’s obligations under Article 5.3 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Article 5.3 requires the UK to ensure that any engagement with the tobacco industry will be limited and will protect public health policy from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry. The Government’s commitment to conform to its treaty obligations is spelt out in its Tobacco Control Plan [4] and ASH believes this should have been made explicit in the anti-smuggling strategy too.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH said:

“Tobacco smuggling is still a huge problem in this country and undermines other tobacco control measures. Although it’s encouraging that the Government is committing significant resources to tackling the problem, it’s worrying to see the Government relying on the tobacco industry for information when the industry has been a major driver of smuggling.

HMRC needs to make clear that any such communication must be limited and in line with our legal obligations under the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco control.”

ASH also believes that ambitious new objectives should have been set for the reduction in the illicit market share of 5% for cigarettes and 33% for HRT by 2013.[5]

[1] Tackling Tobacco Smuggling – building on success. HMRC & UK Border Agency, April 2011 http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/news/tackling-tobacco.htm

[2] In the submission to the Treasury in advance of this year’s Budget, ASH and the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies called on the Government to set the following targets: (1) to reduce to reduce the illicit market share of cigarettes to 5% by 2012-13 and of HRT to 33% (from the current levels of 11% and 49% respectively).
The underlying principle of Article 5.3 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. Therefore the Article states that: “Parties should protect the formulation and implementation of public health policies for tobacco control from the tobacco industry to the greatest extent possible.” Guidelines for the implementation of Article 5.3 are available at: www.who.int/fctc/protocol/guidelines/adopted/article_5_3/en/

[3] The current indicative level for persons travelling from EU countries to the UK is up to 3200 cigarettes and 3kg of rolling tobacco. The Government proposes reducing these levels to 800 cigarettes and 1 kg of rolling tobacco.

[4] Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A Tobacco Control Plan for England. See chapter 10 – Protecting tobacco control from vested interests. (p47)
For example, the Government has pledged to publish the details of all policy-related meetings between the tobacco industry and government departments but excludes matters relating to the reduction of the illicit trade in tobacco. ASH believes that all meetings should be excluded from the transparent process that applies to other government departments.

[5] The most recent figures for the illicit market share for cigarettes is 11% in 2008-9 and for HRT is 49% in 2008-9 and the recommended objectives would be in line with current rates of decline. See HMRC. Measuring tax gaps 2010. An official statistics release. 16th September, 2010.