Smokers respond by buying underground cigarettes

Underground or 'fake' cigarettes are flooding the country and costing £2bn a year in lost revenues, according to the Local Government Association (LGA). Furthermore, their sale is said to be hampering the government's programme to encourage smokers to quit.

The 'fake' cigarettes are sometimes counterfeit, packaged to resemble well-known brands, and sometimes are actually well-known brands that enter the country illegally without paying tobacco duty. Sniffer dogs have been used to uncover secret stashes hidden behind walls, under floorboards, and in secret panels. They are sold from shops, private homes, and on the internet.

What did they expect? Many voices, including ours, told them what would happen if plain packaging laws were introduced. This was not theory. We had seen what happened when Australia did that. Plain packaging made cigarette packs easy to copy. Underground cigarettes were harder to keep out of the hands of underage smokers. They are also not amenable to controls for quality, and many contain a higher proportion of hazardous substances than their legitimate counterparts.

Many voices, including ours, also told them that eye-watering tax increases on tobacco would not bring in the revenues that governments anticipated because the higher prices would tempt more people to buy contraband versions.

The response of the LGA is unsurprising. It is a call for tougher penalties, greater enforcement, and bigger fines "to help councils' enforcement work against rogue traders, reduce crime in our communities and protect the health of children and young people." Presumably they also call for "more resources," as nearly all government bodies do these days.

As long as the incentives remain high, it is doubtful if such measures will make the desired difference. There is a proven way to pursue most of those objectives without driving people to criminality. It is to promote vaping as a far safer alternative, to allow more advertising of smoke-free products, and to remove the petty regulations, including those that originated in the EU, that hold back the proven way to lead people away from tobacco smoking.