Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Inside the UK's illicit tobacco business

Article in Vice about Britain's illegal tobacco problem.

Phil Mykytiuk has spent a decade mapping tobacco crime gangs in the north of England. He is new in post as a trading standards manager at Bolton Council in Greater Manchester but worked for 10 years on a tobacco enforcement team at nearby Rochdale Council.

.. The National Crime Agency said that while it supports partner agencies on tobacco enforcement, its focus is on prohibited commodities like drugs and firearms, with HMRC taking the lead on tobacco. 

Mykytiuk, though, believes the multiple layers of crime behind cheap, illegal tobacco are escaping scrutiny, allowing crime gangs – emboldened by the lack of deterrent – to expand their power base right under the noses of enforcement. Having witnessed Kurdish tobacco gang members invest heavily in property and high street businesses here in the UK, he’s now seeing evidence of them moving into cannabis farms.

“But forget drugs,” he says. “Drugs is yesterday. The big thing is tobacco. These gangs are becoming the most capable criminals in this country. Right now it's the biggest threat we’ve ever faced.”

As the article notes, official statistics indicate that the illicit market is large (17%) but has not grown in recent years. Maybe, maybe not. Official statistics are based on a vague estimate that is highly sensitive to the assumptions fed into the model. The government could sample litter to see how many packs were not sold legally in the UK. I suspect this would give a larger and more realistic estimate, but HMRC shows no interest in knowing what's really going on.
Tobacco taxes are crazily high these days and it's hard to imagine high rates of 'tax morale' among smokers. If anything, they might feel a moral duty to starve a government that discriminates against them of money.  

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