“Tobacco is unlike any other product as it is the only legal consumer good on the market which is lethal when used as the manufacturer intended.”
This justification by Lincolnshire County Council for a new law banning all branding on cigarette packets from 2016 is all too true for Julie Grant, former owner of Butters workwear and outdoor clothing in Spalding.
Since 2014, Julie has been campaigning alongside Lincolnshire Trading Standards and Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue to raise awareness of the issues surrounding illegal cigarettes, a lucrative black market estimated to be costing the UK about £2 billion a year in lost tax revenues.
In April 2012, Julie’s mother June Buffham (71) died when fire swept through her Spalding home caused when a “cheap” cigarette dropped onto the chair she was sitting in, setting it alight when it failed to self-extinguish.
Julie said: “The date will haunt and stay with me forever and I’ll never forget hearing those words – ‘there has been a fire at home and your mum is dead.’
“The moments that followed were horrible – Why did this happen? How could I tell my son and daughter that their Grandma, who they loved dearly, was dead?
“The sight and smell of a room that had been completely destroyed by the fire won’t leave me and the fact that Mum hadn’t stood a chance.
“After my Mum’s death and with the backing of my Dad, I decided that something good had to come from the pain I was suffering so I have been working closely with Lincolnshire Trading Standards, TV and the press to tell my story in the hope that people will realise the true dangers of illegal cigarettes. Up until three years ago, the truth behind these cheap cigarettes my Mum smoked wasn’t widely known, but they aren’t regulated in the European Union (EU) and don’t come up to our safety standards.
“I relive my Mum’s death on a daily basis, but Lincolnshire Trading Standards have been a wonderful support to me and are constantly working to get this trade stopped.”
A survey by auditors KPMG, commissioned by the four largest tobacco manufacturers in Europe, found that sales of illegal cigarettes had jumped by 48 per cent between 2013 and 2014.
Amongst a UK population of about 64.5 million people, just over 42 billion cigarettes were produced last year, with one in two illegal products coming from Poland, Pakistan, Belarus and Spain.
James Barge, director of corporate affairs for Philip Morris Limited, said: “The KPMG report’s findings are very concerning as they show that the illegal trade in cigarettes is not a victimless crime.
“It harms governments, taxpayers, consumers and manufacturers, meaning that the only people who benefit from it are criminals.
“We remain committed to tackling the illegal trade in tobacco and to continuing to work closely together with our partners, law enforcement and government agencies to combat it.”
One agency involved in trying to smash the black market in tobacco is Lincolnshire Trading Standards whose officers seized nearly 140,000 illegal and counterfeit cigarettes over the period covered by the KPMG report.
Andy Wright, principal trading standards officer at Lincolnshire County Council, said: “Sales of counterfeit and illicit cigarettes continue to be a concern to us and we are actively working with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the police to crack down on the criminals that sell them.
“Shops that sell fake cigarettes are conning consumers and taking money away from local businesses that do trade legitimately and it isn’t fair that they should lose out because they cannot compete with the cheap prices of illegal items.
“Also, a pack of counterfeit cigarettes will not comply with important safety legislation and are totally unregulated so it can be a lottery as to what they really contain, including unregulated chemicals.
“Most tobacco products we now seize are non-duty paid or unsafe and fail a self-extinguish test which, of course, raises the risk of fire.
“Trading in counterfeit goods is already a serious offence which can carry up to 10 years’ imprisonment and we welcome tough sentences handed out by UK courts in the hope that they act as a deterrent to others who might see illicit cigarettes as a way of making a quick profit.”
Black market trade in tobacco hits shops
Illegal tobacco is one end of a twin threat to shopkeepers selling cigarettes legally who are already bracing themselves for plain packaging restrictions from May 2016.
Asgar Vanparekh, co-owner of both Classic News and Spalding News in Spalding, said: “It’s having a big impact on us because cigarettes are the biggest part of our turnover.
“We’ve always been doing thing legally, being very careful on age restrictions for cigarette sales, and we’re not going to change our views.
“But there needs to be restrictions on the black market and harsh penalties for those caught selling illegal cigarettes.”
Hopes that the situation will improve for shopkeepers appears bleak after a Tobacco Manufacturers Association survey of 12,000 UK adults, commissioned in April 2014, found that 28 per cent bought cigarettes from “non-shop sources” and a third of these were illegal brands.
A spokesman for Holbeach Supermarket, Spalding, said: “I don’t know whether to blame the Government, Lincolnshire County Council or the shopkeepers themselves for taking advantage of the situation.
“Anyone selling illegal cigarettes should lose their licence.”