Labour Councillor for Galway City Council Niall McNelis believes that the scale of the illegal cigarette trade in Galway city is out of control and Customs and Excise must take action to eradicate the worsening problem both in the city and county.
He says: “From reports I hear locally, Customs in Galway city and county are taking far too relaxed an approach to those selling illegal tobacco in markets and door to door. Cigarette smuggling is not some sort of victimless minor crime. Last year the Exchequer lost €556 million in unpaid excise levies. That is money that will have to be made up elsewhere through cutbacks in health services and schools. There is ample evidence that smuggling is run by vicious crime gangs and paramilitaries.”
According to Councillor McNelis, in 2009 the fines imposed for both the smuggling and selling of illegal cigarettes totalled just over €80,000. A total of 140 people were fined for cigarette smuggling, which amounted to €67,130 in fines imposed — an average fine of just €479.50. In a single recent case in Northern Ireland, a fine of over €800,000 was imposed.
“Only a quango designed by this Government, the Office of Tobacco Control, could hail their year as a success for tobacco control when the illicit cigarette trade is completely out of control. The total revenue received for cigarettes between January 1st and March 31st 2010 was €100.7 million representing a loss of €200 million from 2009, yet smoking levels remain unchanged. At this rate the Government will be haemorrhaging revenue from the legal trade by the millions by the end of 2010, at a time when this country needs every penny it can get,” he says.
Cllr McNelis continues: “Other countries, such as Spain, France and New Zealand, have shown that where there has been better enforcement and stiff penalties, smuggling rates have dramatically declined. Spain had a smuggling rate of 16 per cent in the 1990s. Between 1993 and 2000 resources to combat smuggling increased from €4 million to almost €40 million, while the real price of tobacco went up by 30 per cent. The result was a drop in the smuggling rate to just two per cent.”
Counterfeit cigarettes contain more tar, cadmium and lead than legally manufactured cigarettes and consequently pose a much greater health risk than that posed by legally manufactured cigarettes. Cllr McNelis says recent reports indicate that the percentage of cigarettes seized which are counterfeit has increased from 50 per cent last year to almost 80 per cent this year. Tobacco is the single largest cause of avoidable death in the European Union, accounting for over half a million deaths annually. Here in Ireland, more than 6,000 people die from smoking-related disease every year with 95 per cent of lung cancers being caused by smoking.
Cllr McNelis says the Government has introduced commendable legislation such as the smoking ban to promote and aid the cessation of smoking, and there are many organisations and charities in Ireland who do wonderful work in this regard; however he says the introduction of some legislative measures have undoubtedly led to an increase in the illicit cigarette trade.
“The point of sale display ban introduced last year may have had worthy motives but in practical effect it has massively worsened the illegal trade. Since the introduction of the Point of Sale Display Ban, there have been over a quarter of a billion cigarettes seized in Ireland, recovering €95 million of lost tax revenue as unscrupulous retailers hide their illegal cigarettes under counters away from public view.”