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X-Ray investigates illegal cigarettes and tobacco

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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 15 March 2010

This week X-Ray investigates the illegal cigarettes and tobacco trade.

Smoking has become less socially acceptable over the years, and the number of smokers in Wales has fallen in the last decade.

But more than a fifth of the Welsh adult population are still lighting up, and a recent survey showed that in the poorest areas of Wales more than 35% of adults choose to smoke.

Image of packets of cigarettes in a warehouse

With ever-increasing retail prices, some smokers are turning to the black market - it is thought that one in 10 cigarettes smoked in the UK is smuggled.

In the last three years more than £7m worth of illegal cigarettes and tobacco have been seized in Wales' ports and airports by the UK Border Agency.

But despite more than 2,000 seizures between 2007-2009, bootlegged stock is still being sold from people's homes and on the streets.

'Big problem'

For shop owners like Vinayak Patel, from Pontypridd, the illicit trade can have a devastating effect.

"It's quite a big problem and we can lose quite a big chunk of revenue," Mr Patel tells X-Ray. "It could be as much as 30% you can lose the business.

"When you tell customers a price they say they can get it half price elsewhere. It's very frustrating, very annoying. While you are paying the tax and working hard here and other people are getting away with it."

Shopkeepers are not the only ones losing out to the bootleggers, as Stuart Crookshank from HM Revenue & Customs explains.

"The exchequer is losing probably about £2 billion a year and that money could be better used for hospitals and schools and things like that," he says.

There are, he explains, also health issues with counterfeit cigarettes.

"Some of these counterfeit cigarettes contain six times the amount of lead, hundreds of times the amount of tar, and in one case they found rat droppings in them," says Mr Crookshank.

"Many of these cigarettes sold cheaply are sold to young children and that can't be a good thing at all. And it also unfortunately provides an infrastructure for criminals and organised crime."

'Tip of the iceberg'

Dai Jones from Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council explains that each case that comes to the council's attention is prosecuted - and the county has a 100% success record in such prosecutions.

"The bad news is that we don't get to know about many of these cases and so the things we've dealt with, really, we know to be the tip of the iceberg," he says.

Shops selling tobacco products come under scrutiny too, and there are tough penalties for
those tempted to supply the illicit market in tobacco. 

Last year a joint sting operation between customs and trading standards teams, who visited more than 600 retail and other outlets across south Wales, netted more than 45,000 cigarettes and nearly 150kg of tobacco which was being sold illegally.

Photograph of seized cigarettesA Cardiff businessman was recently jailed for 18 months for his part in a tobacco smuggling ring.

How to stay within the law
There is an easy way to access cheap tobacco and stay within the law - and that is to buy lots of duty-free cigarettes on holiday. 

But some travellers can find they fall foul of the law when they bring supplies from overseas - so what are the guidelines for bringing cigarettes and tobacco into the UK?


Travellers arriving into the UK from an EU country can bring in an unlimited amount of most goods.

For excise goods such as tobacco (and alcohol), there are no restrictions. However you must meet the conditions below:

  • You transport the goods yourself.
  • The goods are for your own use or as a gift. If the person you give the goods to pays you in any way (including reimbursing you for any expenses or payment in kind), then it's not a gift and the goods may be seized.
  • The goods are duty and tax paid in the EU country where they were acquired.

If you don't meet these conditions, the goods (and any vehicle that transported them) may be seized.


Travellers arriving into the UK from non-EU countries can bring in one from the following list:

200 cigarettes
100 cigarillos
50 cigars
250g of tobacco

Or you can combine these allowances. For example, if you bring in 100 cigarettes (half your full allowance) you can also bring in 25 cigars (half your full allowance). This would make up your full tobacco allowance. You cannot go over your total tobacco allowance.

Additional conditions when bringing goods into the UK

To qualify for the tax/duty free allowances you also need to meet the following conditions:

  • You must transport the goods yourself.
  • The goods must be for your own use or as a gift. If the person you give the goods to pays you in any way (including reimbursing you for any expenses), then it's not a gift and you'll have to pay the duty and/or tax.
  • To bring in tobacco (or alcohol) you must be aged 17 or over.

The following destinations fall within the EU category:

Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus*, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland (Republic of), Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (but not the Canary Islands), Sweden, the UK (but not the Channel Islands).

*parts not under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus are non-EU.

In the case of Gibraltar the customs allowances for outside the EU apply.

Source: HM Revenue & Customs.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    It is absolutely absurb that retailers lose out on the profits of illegal cigarettes, as if they buy them from the cash and carry there is a very minimal profit margin. And the reason people buy illegal cigarettes is because of the price, the goverment is doing themselves no favours by increasing the price every year, they are encouraging the black market in cigarettes. And for those anti- smokers. If we where all to give up tomorrow where do you think the goverment is going to regain the loss of revenue from cigarettes. YOU.


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