Illegal cigarettes, either counterfeit or contraband, are as easily available in rural areas of Cork as they are in the city.
An undercover team of operatives, led by two former senior police officers, uncovered sufficient evidence of the illegal trade in North Cork within a period of just a few hours.
One female operative, a smoker, targets licensed premises in Fermoy, Mallow and Mitchelstown and, after striking up conversations with other smokers, was provided with contact numbers for people selling cheap tobacco products.
The first illegal supplier, an Eastern European, met her on Fermoy’s MacCurtain Street and handed over a 20 pack of Marlboro for which he charged €6 — about €4 euro cheaper than the recommended retail price.
Later, a male operative made contact with a man believed to be of Italian extraction who agreed to meet him in the town’s nearby Lidl car park.
The man, who arrived in a black Alfa Romeo, handed over 200 L+N brand cigarettes for which he charged €60. These cigarettes are likely to have been purchased in Gran Canaria where the 200 would retail at approximately €24, so the seller made a considerable profit.
The sample buying was conducted by a team led by former Garda Detective Chief Superintendent Kevin Donohoe and ex-Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly.
They are working on behalf of Philip Morris International — which manufactures such brands as Marlboro and L&M — to highlight the growing trade in tobacco smuggling.
The Irish Examiner accompanied the team which also purchased a 50g pouch of roll-your-own Golden Virginia from an Irish man following a conversation in a pub in Mitchelstown. He charged €8 for the pouch, just around a third of the over-the-counter cost.
Another Irishman handed over a 50g pouch of the same tobacco in Mallow, again for the same amount.
Following further investigations, a phone conversation was held with another likely contact in Mallow. He said he didn’t have any tobacco products immediately available but would be able to get some within a day or two. The contact offered to call back the operative when the product was available.
Meanwhile, Michael Hanley, who operates a newsagents in Pearse Square, Fermoy, said the 50g Golden Virginia pouch would normally retail at around €24.
A member of the National Federation of Retailers, Mr Hanley said he believes cigarette smuggling “is rampant.”
“Firstly you have Irish holidaymakers going abroad who pick up as much as they’re allowed and bring it back. Then you have the underground trade which is substantial,” he said.
“The Government is doing nothing to solve this problem which is hitting small retailers hard.
“Customs officers are doing their best, but they are not adequately resourced. Our cigarette sales are progressively going down. I know people are quitting, but it’s also as a result of others buying illegal cigarettes,” he said.
Grant Thornton estimates cigarette smuggling is costing the country up to €500m a year in lost revenue.
The investigation team, in north Cork midweek, also headed to the annual Cahermee horse fair at Buttevant, confident they would make a number of detections amongst the many stall-holders.
However, several of the stallholders said they were not selling the products due to a huge garda presence in the town, of both uniformed and plainclothes.
Some said they had been sold out of products since the previous day.
However, one man, who was Eastern European, told the woman undercover operative he could sell her a 20 packet of Carrolls.
She handed over €6, which was €4 cheaper than the retail price.
At first, the operative believed he product was fake but, on later examination, the packet proved to be genuine and had a revenue stamp on it.
The team came to the conclusion that the cigarettes may have been part of a stolen assignment of cigarettes.
Meanwhile, all the tobacco products acquired by the team during the day-long investigation in Cork county were contraband — genuine products which had been brought into the country without revenue duty being paid.
However, disappointingly, they did not come across what are known as illegal whites — fake brands such as Excellence, 666 Goldmount, American Legend and Blackmount.
Mr Donohoe explained, at recent sorties undertaken by the team in Tipperary, Carlow and Kilkenny, illegal whites were common.
He reckoned more than 70% of the tobacco they purchased was made up of illegal whites.
While most people would agree that smoking ordinary cigarettes was a risk to public health, illegal whites are potentially very dangerous.
They contain high levels of asbestos, lead, arsenic, traces of rat poison, rat droppings and human excrement.
They are manufactured in China, the United Arab Emirates, and Eastern Europe for as little as 20 cents a packet.
“Last year, the Government in Poland closed 47 factories which were making these counterfeit versions,” Mr Donohoe said.
“A container of cigarettes can net smugglers more than €1m in pure profit and the deterrents are minor compared to drug smuggling,” Mr O’Reilly said.
The profits are so lucrative that drug dealing gangs are increasingly turning to the illicit trade, especially as the court penalties, if a person was apprehended, are miniscule in terms of those for drugs possession or supply.
A person found with more than €10,000 in drugs could face up to 14 years in jail.
If it was €10,000 of illegal cigarettes or even more, the likelihood of punishment in the courts would be a monetary fine.
A jail sentence is extremely rare for those involved in cigarette smuggling on a lower scale.
Ireland has the second highest price for a packet of 20 cigarettes in Europe, just behind Norway at €11.84.
It is believed most of the cigarette smuggling in Ireland is carried out by Eastern Europeans. A packet of genuine cigarettes can cost as little as €1.70 in Albania.
Subversive organisations, meanwhile, are also getting involved in the trade.
It remains a huge source of income for protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland while the US Congress listed the Real IRA as being financed by the illegal cigarette trade.
Mr O’Reilly said many retailers in the UK are selling counterfeit cigarettes at a large rate, which is a significant problem for both the industry and the exchequer.
“During a recent operation which we undertook in Derby, we visited 44 shops and 43 of them were selling counterfeit products.
“There’s also a high number of retailers doing that in Northern Ireland. However, you don’t see that visible in the Republic,” Mr O’Reilly added.
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