One thing on which we agree with the Tobacco Retailers Alliance (TRA) is that illicit tobacco is an important problem which needs robust enforcement action.
Their manifesto includes the clear call to “ensure sufficient resources to tackling the illegal tobacco trade …. apply strict and consistent penalties to illicit traders and criminal traffickers”.
This chimes nicely with ASH Scotland’s manifesto for this month’s Scottish Parliament elections, where one of the six priorities was for action on illicit tobacco – “enforcement work by trading standards, police and others must be sufficiently resourced and robustly pursued. Any trader caught selling illicit tobacco should receive an immediate long-term ban from selling tobacco of any kind.”
Sadly that is where the consensus ends, and otherwise we don’t seem able to agree on which way is up. Or, specifically, whether the orange line showing the volume of illicit tobacco in the graph above is decreasing (as we say) or increasing (as they seem determined to maintain).
The TRA, and other tobacco interests, claim that increasing the price or regulation of tobacco boosts the illicit market. We’ll likely hear these views again this week, around the 20th May implementation of standardised packaging and other measures.
So it is timely to consider whether this claim actually holds true.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) report that since 2000 there has been a 76% drop in illicit cigarette sticks and a 33% drop in the volume of illicit hand-rolling tobacco – a remarkable achievement, brought about by improved enforcement.
In this context it does seem rather bizarre to keep claiming that taxing and regulating the sale of tobacco will lead to an increased illicit market. These substantial drops in illicit happened during a period when the price of tobacco has increased steadily, along with what the TRA themselves describe as “a never-ending stream of tobacco regulation”.
We plotted the HMRC figures on the graph above and sent it to the TRA (repeatedly) during a slightly tetchy Twitter exchange last Friday. So they can have no excuse for not knowing that illicit tobacco is much lower than it used to be.
These successes against the illicit trade should be supported and celebrated. But they also need to be protected. Enforcement agencies are under severe financial pressure – and any reduction in enforcement creates real concern that illicit could be allowed to grow again.
We suggest that the effective way to drive down the illicit market, and keep it down, is to focus on our shared desire for continued, well-resourced, robust enforcement. This is the approach that is supported by the evidence.