Tobacco smuggling 'now epidemic'

 

The Government needs to develop a national anti-smuggling strategy to combat an “epidemic” in the importation and sale of illegal cigarettes, according to a coalition of health groups.

The availability of cheap black-market cigarettes has helped push up smoking rates and is allowing criminal gangs to dictate Irish health policy, representatives of the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) and Ash Ireland told an Oireachtas committee today.

The three organisations jointly called for increased penalties, more resources for detecting contraband and on-the-spot fines to stamp out tobacco smuggling. About 25 per cent of cigarettes sold here are illegal, which costs the Exchequer almost €400 million in lost taxes and duty.

The flood of illegal cigarettes coming into Ireland will have significant health implications for the population and is likely to add to the 7,000 annual deaths already attributed to smoking, they told the justice committee.

About 200 million illegal cigarettes were seized by the Customs Service last year, compared to 135 million in 2008, 74 million in 2007 and 52 million in 2006. In one incident alone, 120 million cigarettes were seized in Greenore port in Co Louth, last October.

Chris Macey, head of advocacy with the IHF, told the committee that smugglers regarded Ireland as a soft touch. “If their activities are allowed to prevent action to reduce tobacco consumption such as through tax hikes, we are effectively allowing them to dictate our health policy.”

Dr Angie Brown, chairwoman of Ash said the authorities should handled tobacco smuggling with the same tenacity as drug smuggling. “We are deeply concerned that the substantial increase in smuggling will lead to a significant increase in smoking prevalence and addiction among our population and in particular, our young people.”

The groups pointed out that the biggest fine in the State for tobacco smuggling in the last three years was €7,500, compared to €807,000 in a case in Northern Ireland.

“Because of our low penalties and low enforcement, the risk involved in smuggling illegal cigarettes into Ireland is low, while the rewards are great,” said Kathleen O’Meara, head of advocacy with the ICS.

“Because the Government is not acting, Ireland is being flooded with illegal cigarettes and the law is being openly flouted.”