Organised criminals target Scots smokers with illegal cigarettes

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ABOUT one in 12 cigarettes in Scotland is made and sold illegally - funding criminal activities and costing the government millions of pounds in lost tax revenue.

A survey found that smokers in Paisley bought the highest proportion of illegal cigarettes at 13.7 per cent, while in Glasgow one in ten cigarettes is not bought from legal sources.

In Scotland as a whole, 7.6 per cent of cigarettes are illegal, according to the survey, which analysed discarded cigarette packets in major cities in the final three months of last year.

"Tobacco smuggling is organised crime on a global scale with huge profits ploughed back into activities like drug dealing, people smuggling and fraud," said John Whiting, assistant director of criminal investigations at HM Revenue & Customs.

It estimates that illegal cigarettes cost the UK 2.2 billion in annual tax revenue.

Previously, illegal cigarettes were genuine UK brands smuggled from lower-priced EU countries, but are now increasingly coming from further afield. Many are "illicit whites", manufactured specifically to be smuggled into the UK and are sold at a street price of 2.50 to 3 per packet - less than half the average UK price.

Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, is seen as a lucrative target for cigarette smugglers, due to high domestic duty on cigarettes. Cigarette sellers have called for tax on tobacco to be brought more into line with the rest of Europe to make the country less appealing to smugglers.

A spokesman for the Tobacco Retailers' Alliance said: "The UK government's high tax policy makes legitimately sold tobacco more expensive here than virtually anywhere else in Europe.

"So a smuggler - who might traditionally offer half-price deals over shop prices - will stand to make a far greater profit if he plies his trade in Scotland than, say, in Spain or Italy where the tax levels and therefore retail prices are lower."

But anti-smoking organisations claimed the tobacco trade, which funded the survey through industry giant Philip Morris, was "scaremongering" over the prevalence of illegal cigarettes.

Sheila Duff, chief executive of Ash Scotland, said: "Illicit tobacco can blight communities and criminals don't ask for proof of age. But while the illicit trade is a genuine problem that requires co-ordinated action from a range of enforcement agencies, it is important to remember that the tobacco industry scaremongers over the illicit trade at every opportunity."

It is thought that illegal cigarettes are more likely to contain harmful substances than legally produced versions.

Some have been found to contain asbestos, rat droppings, plastics and petrol residues as a result of the containers in which they have been stored.