Tuesday 26 September 2023

How big is the black market in tobacco?

I came across an empty pack of Manchester cigarettes at the weekend and it got me thinking about the black market in tobacco which has supposedly shrunk in the last 20 years. Maybe it has, but it would be nice if we tried to measure it properly, as I explain in this article for The Critic.

I first heard about Manchester cigarettes when Australia introduced plain packaging and Manchester became the country’s biggest selling illicit brand. It’s still doing well there. Last December, a man was jailed for smuggling three million of them into Melbourne. The interesting thing about these cigarettes is there are not counterfeits. The big tobacco companies have often borrowed English place names — Pall Mall, Mayfair, Richmond, Marlborough (they later shortened that one) and even Chesterfield — but they have never made a cigarette called Manchester.

When plain packaging was introduced, the worry was that counterfeiters would find it easier to counterfeit the plain packs. Instead, the black marketeers swung in the opposite direction, apparently deciding that if smokers did not like plain packs then they would appreciate an old school pack. Australia was suddenly deluged with “illicit whites” made in China and the Middle East that are principally, if not wholly, produced for illegal sale.

Finding a pack of Manchester cigarettes on a British pavement is a firm sign of industrial scale tobacco smuggling. I haven’t smoked for over a decade so my firsthand knowledge of the black market is limited to what other people smoke and which packs are left on the street, but I have noticed that a lot of them fall under the umbrella of what HMRC calls “non-duty paid”.

No comments: