Thursday, 23 September 2010

Illicit tobacco is not a victimless crime

This week I took part in the first Scottish National Summit on Illicit Tobacco, which brought enforcement organisations, the Scottish Government, retailers, health organisations and community representatives together to discuss the problems of illicit tobacco in Scotland and how to tackle them.

Illicit tobacco is not a victimless crime. Cheap cigarettes or tobacco undermine people’s attempts to stop smoking and make it more likely that tobacco, a lethal product, will get into the hands of children. The cost to the public purse in lost taxation runs into billions, money that is much needed to fund our public services.

Tackling illicit tobacco is one of the few areas of concern we in public health currently share with tobacco companies. But it is a late consensus. For the tobacco companies, smuggling became a high profile issue only when the outcry over non duty paid goods led to new arrangements that penalised their own involvement in alternative retail distribution routes.

Criminal gangs then moved in to profit from the continuing demand for illicit tobacco supplies, and we heard that the same gangs that are involved in bringing drugs and weaponry into communities now count tobacco amongst their commodities. People buying cheap cigarettes or rolling tobacco from a fag house or car boot sale are unknowingly funding serious criminal activities, and in some cases terrorist activities.

Meantime, funding for the Scottish Government’s Enhanced Tobacco Sales Enforcement Programme which brings local authorities into partnership with HM Revenue and Customs to tackle illicit tobacco comes to an end in 2011, and the UK Border Agency which is charged with detection and confiscation at points of entry into the UK is said to be withdrawing funding for three posts at Stranraer Port.

Tobacco whether fake, smuggled or duty-paid, kills. The tobacco epidemic claims one in four of the adult deaths in Scotland ever year and can’t be ignored. We need decisive action to reduce smuggling and continued action to tackle tobacco; because the cost of inaction is unbearable