Blow away this smoke screen made from myths

Preventing smuggled cigarettes coming into Ireland is protecting young people from the very high risks of smoking, writes Kathleen O’Meara.

Blow away this smoke screen made from myths

The Irish Cancer Society wants an investigation into the Irish market, and asks why cigarettes legally sold into other countries end up being sold illegally here.

Stories abound about the smuggling of cigarettes into Ireland. Some of them are presented as fact, some are simply urban myths.

Like the one about rat droppings being found in counterfeit cigarettes allegedly made in factories in deepest China and sold on the Irish market.

Or the myth about the level of tobacco smuggling into Ireland. If you were to believe some commentators, including the industry itself, up to one in four of all cigarettes sold in Ireland are illegal.

This is presented as fact, but it is just not true. The fact is, the rate of tobacco smuggling into Ireland is dropping and is currently at 12%, a 3% drop in three years. This figure comes from the Revenue Commissioners and we applaud their efforts to stem the flow of this dangerous and illegal activity.

It’s very important that Revenue’s efforts are resourced, not only because tobacco smuggling is illegal, but also for the very simple reason that if cheap smuggled cigarettes are widely available, then it is more likely that children and young people will start to smoke.

That’s because the high price of cigarettes is the biggest disincentive to children and young people to take up smoking. How do we know this? The Irish Cancer Society, with the Irish Heart Foundation, asked them. We commissioned a company to do focus group research with teenagers aged 15 and 16 and they told us that the high price of cigarettes is the biggest single reason they wouldn’t smoke.

So we keep a close eye on the figures coming from Revenue, not only on the levels of smuggling into Ireland, but also on what is actually coming on to the black market in Ireland.

The tobacco industry peddle the myth that our streets are riddled with fake, cheap, badly produced cigarettes imported from the Far East. Such packs are either cigarettes produced to look like big-brand tobacco or have made-up names that are produced specifically to be smuggled.

We were surprised recently then to see that more than 90% of the tobacco being smuggled into Ireland was actually originally manufactured and legally sold into another market by the tobacco industry, only to find its way, illegally, into Ireland.

This kind of smuggling is not a new development, even in Ireland, but happened in Europe and in North America and Canada, for years — until it was stopped.

What happens is this. The tobacco industry oversupplies a market. For instance in Ukraine in 2008, 30bn more cigarettes than the market could consume were sold — legally — into the country. They then disappeared, picked up by smugglers, and found their way into the black markets of Western Europe.

In the UK, between 2000 and 2002, 16bn cigarettes were smuggled into the country, making the smuggling rate very high. Half of them were Regals and Superkings, manufactured by Imperial Tobacco. Around the same time, billions of extra cigarettes were being sold by the industry into Moldova, Latvia, Russia, and Afghanistan.

A UK Parliamentary Committee questioned the chief executive of Imperial Tobacco about this in 2002. He was asked: “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?”

He told the committee that the supply had been discontinued because “product was coming back to the UK”.

The industry’s defence was summed up by one member of the committee, who said: “One comes to the conclusion that you are either crooks or you are stupid, and you do not look very stupid.”

We want an investigation into what is happening in the Irish market, and why over 90% of the cigarettes being smuggled into the country are contraband — that is, were originally legally produced. These cigarettes have been supplied by the tobacco industry into countries with high levels of criminality and where cigarettes are cheap.

We want the investigation to find out how contraband cigarettes are coming here, whether this country is being used as a smuggling hub for Europe and whether international smuggling rings are targeting Ireland.

We believe that the tobacco industry, which controls the supply of cigarettes into every market, should be queried about how they are managing the supply of their own product.

They complain loudly about tobacco smuggling, but what are they doing to stop their own product getting into the hands of smugglers?

We know that the Revenue Commissioners is committed to intercepting illegal cigarettes coming into Ireland and are having considerable success in this area. But we think more can be done, and should be done, because lives are at stake.

The tobacco industry needs to recruit 50 smokers every day to replace those who are dying or quitting. Almost 80% of smokers say they started before they were 18. If they get hooked, they run the risk of dying prematurely of smoking, either from cancer, heart disease, or other respiratory illness. Half of long-term smokers will die as a result of smoking.

Preventing smuggled cigarettes coming into Ireland is protecting young people from the very high risks of starting to smoke. This is surely a worthy aim.

* Kathleen O’Meara is Head of Advocacy and Communications at the Irish Cancer Society. www.cancer.ie

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