The mark-up is huge, with a packet of 20 of what are known as ‘illegal whites’ selling on the streets for anything between €4 and €6.
The illegal whites are cigarettes with fictional brand names such as Excellence, Palace, President, CK, Gin, Ling, and M&G and are being manufactured in the United Arab Emirates, China, and Eastern Europe.
An operation carried out by former policemen in Cork in recent days showed the city awash with the illegal whites which were purchased from Asian, Irish, and Nigerian people. The team of four, which travelled from Britain, spent just a few hours walking around the city talking to people on the street before being able to carry out a number of purchases from different sellers, which included one shop in the city centre. The Irish Examiner accompanied the team on the operation.
They were led by former Garda Detective Chief Superintendent Kevin Donohoe and ex-Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly. They have been working on behalf of Philip Morris International — which manufactures such brands as Marlboro and L&M — to get a snapshot of the rapidly growing illegal market.
Mr Donohoe said the team carried out test purchases in a number of other areas in the country in recent months and determined that 70%- 80% of all the illegal tobacco they have uncovered is counterfeit and potentially very dangerous to people’s health. The remaining tobacco purchased was contraband — genuine brands of cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco smuggled into the country without duty being paid. The former senior garda said Irish Customs believes the tax loss to the exchequer per year is around €250m, but Grant Thornton has put it as high as €500m.
Mr O’Reilly said there was a far higher percentage of potentially lethal illegal whites in Ireland than in Britain. He said there was some evidence to show some of these cigarettes smuggled into Ireland were later exported to Britain.
Mr Donohoe said the illegal whites were being smuggled into Ireland in containers through ports such as Dublin, Ringaskiddy, and Rosslare. It is believed the gangs are shipping in containers which each contain illegal cigarettes with a street value of €1m.
The profits are so lucrative that drug dealing gangs are increasingly turning to this illicit trade, especially as the penalties if caught are miniscule. 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, they would probably get a fine. A jail sentence is extremely rare for cigarette smuggling.
The undercover team put all the contraband they get into evidence bags and the information they have gained during the course of their work, such as names, addresses, and phone numbers, will be passed onto the gardaí.
It is believed legitimate cigarette manufacturers, who have seen their profits tumble as a result of smuggling, will use evidence gathered by the team to lobby the Government for increased penalties for those caught with illicit cigarettes.
While they have a vested interest in a crackdown on such activity, they can also argue with some authority about the greater health risk of smoking illegal whites.
They will also point out the ease at which criminal gangs can make serious money to further their own activities and the knock-on cost this has to society, coupled with the huge loss of revenue to the State.