Fake cigarettes snuffing out profits for Bromley shop keepers
PUBLISHED: 15:25 26 June 2013 | UPDATED: 15:26 26 June 2013
Fake cigarettes are big business on Britain's black market.
With counterfeit packs available for as little as £2.50 for a box of 20 – less than half the price of the real thing – sales of these illicit products are hitting the nation’s economy by an estimated £3billion a year.
About one third of cigarettes smoked in the South East are contributing nothing to the Exchequer. A recent survey of packets discarded in and around London found the number of fake ones on the streets has doubled in 12 months.
Criminal gangs sell the cigarettes designed to look like the real thing to shops, in pubs, online and at car boot sales.
Mike Patel, owner of Datta News, in the Walnuts shopping centre, Orpington, says his cigarette sales are down by some 20 per cent, but his profits are being hit by more than poor tobacco sales.
“I only make around four per cent profit on a pack of cigarettes”, explains Mike. “But they drive the flow of customers, people who come in to buy cigarettes will often grab a newspaper, a bar of chocolate or a drink.
“We are struggling because our rates and wages still have to be paid, but [numbers of] customers are dropping.”
The smuggling of cigarettes and tobacco is a booming business for crime gangs, according to former Scotland Yard Det Ch Insp Will O’Reilly, who has been researching the issue for Philip Morris International, producers of Marlboro and Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
He said: “We see it time and time again where criminals turn away from high-risk goods, like drugs, and start smuggling tobacco.
“This is a big problem, especially in times of austerity where people are turning to the black market where they can pick up a packet of cigarettes for £2.50.
“These criminals don’t care who they sell to, they don’t care about age.”
The government is pushing for a law requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain boxes in a bid to discourage youth smoking, after Australia became the first country to do so in 2011.
Mike says such a measure would affect shopkeepers more than smokers.
He said: “It hasn’t worked in Australia. People already know what they want, they don’t browse for cigarettes. If a customer smokes Benson & Hedges, that’s what they ask for, they don’t look for the packet.
“We are the ones that will struggle to actually find them on the shelves.”
There are also fears that plain packaging may make it easier to pass off unregulated counterfeit cigarettes as the real thing, though Mike says many smokers are happy to pay less despite not knowing what they contain.
He added: “Once they smoke it and feel it’s ok, they continue regardless of what is in it.
“If they begin to harm your health, who are you going to complain to?”