The Government has been urged not to allow illegal cigarette smuggling to dictate public health policy.
The Irish Cancer Society, ASH Ireland and the Irish Heart Foundation have joined forces to push for a €2 increase in tobacco tax in the April supplementary budget to generate significant health benefits and exchequer returns.
It has been suggested that such an increase would result in more illegal cigarettes being bought in Ireland.
In a joint statement, the groups expressed their shock and concern at the growth in black market cigarettes, the presence of very sophisticated counterfeit cigarettes in Ireland and the under-funded and under-resourced nature of the services to contain the problem.
“The DPP has said that one in four cigarettes smoked in Ireland is illegal and we have learned that there has been a very significant targeting of Ireland by organised crime trading in contraband and counterfeit cigarettes”, said Dr Angie Brown, chairperson of ASH Ireland.
John McCormack, chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), said that while cigarette smuggling is a very serious problem, ‘we do not accept that a price increase should be rejected out of fear of encouraging illegal trading in cigarettes’.
“This would be a complete capitulation to organised criminals while at the same time would represent a total abandonment of the Government’s duty of care to young people who are the particular target of both the tobacco companies and organised criminals,” he explained.
Mr McCormack added that there is also a significant smuggling problem in countries with lower cigarette prices such as Poland and Hungary. It does not always follow that increasing price increases smuggling, he said.
Furthermore, a very considerable body of evidence shows that only a significant price increase will deter young people from starting to smoke and encourage smokers to quit, according to Michael O’Shea, chief executive of the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF).
“But there is no doubt that the Government needs to act urgently to ensure that Ireland is not further targeted by organised crime peddling counterfeit cigarettes which are even more poisonous than legally produced cigarettes,” he said.
According to Dr Brown, people buying illegal cigarettes may not realise that they are both funding organised crime and smoking cigarettes that are even more lethal to their health than legal cigarettes.
In 2008, Revenue seized 134 million illegal cigarettes. However, it is believed that as many as 826 million cigarettes go undetected and are channelled on to be sold at market prices, with children often used as the initial point of contact with potential purchasers.
The ICS, ASH Ireland and IHF have also learned that half of these smuggled cigarettes which are coming into the country are contraband and the other half are counterfeits, largely coming from China organised by major gangs.
“So-called ‘legally’ manufactured cigarette contains over 4000 chemicals, many of which are poisonous such as ant poison, floor cleaner, insecticide, weed killer and polonium. Sixty of these chemicals are known to be cancer causing. However, we have no idea about the ingredients that go into smuggled cigarettes that are produced illegally where there are absolutely no quality controls,” said Dr Brown.
According to the ICS, tougher penalties are needed for tackling and prosecuting smugglers. In 2008, there were only 78 convictions for smuggling, and the ICS believes that more resources should be allocated to Customs and Excise.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.