Concerns have been raised by former police officers over the introduction of plain tobacco packaging and its possible impact on tobacco smuggling. It is feared that it may encourage the production of counterfeit products on a larger scale than before.
Plain packaging could be introduced as a measure to discourage people from buying cigarettes. It is hoped that replacing the interesting package designs with a rather monotone universal one will make smoking appear less enticing. It is widely believed that colorful packs encourage young teenagers to buy cigarettes and take up smoking, while plain packaging could reduce the brand influence and make smoking a less attractive activity for youth.
However, the same plain packaging that might make smoking less appealing to young people may find a new market to draw in. Tobacco smuggling cost HMRC £2.9 billion in lost revenue in 2011. Whilst this figure shows an improvement compared to the previous year when £3.1 billion were lost to the tobacco black market, the issue is far from resolved.
Studies have shown that money obtained from cigarette smuggling is used to fund other organized crime such as people trafficking, arms trade, theft, and drug-related activities. It has been suggested that serious international criminal organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah are funded partly by non-duty-paid tobacco and counterfeit cigarettes. Plain packaging could easily prove an impediment for the police when it comes to tracing the fake products back to the smugglers.
Another issue raised by concerned police officers was that plain packaging would make the job much harder for border officials while giving the smugglers a huge opportunity to cut down on production times. Single approved packaging design for tobacco products would be much easier to copy than the numerous branded cigarette packs now present on the market. Police would then struggle to differentiate between real products and counterfeit packs.
Some 65 billion counterfeit cigarettes are smuggled every year into the European Union. In the United Kingdom, 10 million black market cigarettes were found at the Port in Immingham, and 5.7 million cigarettes were confiscated by Border officers in Hull in November.
Statistics have shown that one in three cigarettes smoked in Birmingham and one in four in London is counterfeit. Despite last year’s decrease in lost revenue due to smuggling, research published in October showed that the practice is on the rise and that overall, 16.5 percent of tobacco products smoked in the United Kingdom are counterfeit.
There is no doubt that plain packaging and government cuts to the police force would negatively impact the effect of successful operations in the future. The UK Border Agency spent £524 million in the last two years to fight smugglers, and 8,000 police officers worked on related tasks. However, government cuts will mean that over half of this force will be unavailable by 2015, as 5,200 Border officers will see their jobs axed. On top of that, the police will also have to slash its spending in response to cuts worth £1.3 billion in its budget by 2014.
As Australia has already introduced plain packaging, more and more people are urging the government to wait and observe. Some have said that the decrease in lost revenue due to tobacco smuggling has encouraged complacency in Britain and the issue is no longer seen as hugely important.
As the counterfeit cigarette market costs the country close to £3 billion, it is feared that police efforts to seize black market goods may fall down their list of priorities in light of the planned budget cuts and that smuggling will not be treated with the severity it deserves.