Cheap tobacco from smugglers 'causes 4,000 deaths a year'
10 October 2008
Cheap cigarettes and other tobacco products smuggled into Britain cause 4,000 or so premature deaths a year, four times the number of fatalities occurring through illegal drugs, doctors claim.
High tobacco prices are drive a flourishing black market for contraband tobacco in Britain, with more than one in five cigarettes known to be smuggled goods.
A study led by Robert West, a professor at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre in London, found that if smuggling were stopped tobacco prices would rise by about 12%.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, West and his colleagues estimate that such a price increase would encourage between 5%-8% of smokers to stop smoking, and the outcome would be about 4,000 lives saved each year.
"Britain already has one of the world's toughest tobacco control policies, but greater action on smuggling might help cut smoking further," the doctors write.
Tobacco smuggling has fallen substantially since the government announced a strategy against the problem in 2000, but the doctors say more needs to be done. They urge the government to follow other European countries in signing legally enforceable agreements with the tobacco firms Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International, to ensure these companies control tobacco distribution and stop supplying contractors who have smuggling links.
The doctors believe clamping down on smuggling could also reduce the huge disparity in health problems between socioeconomic groups, as poorer smokers might quit if prices rose.
This year Customs officials seized contraband tobacco at British ports and prior to shipment of the material. In April 101m cigarettes destined for Britain were taken in Liege, Belgium. The following month 8m Regal King Size cigarettes were seized at Belfast docks; the £2.4m haul would have evaded duty taxes of about £1.8m.
Responsibility for tackling smuggling is soon to pass to the UK Border Agency.
The doctors call on the government to restrict tobacco sales and distribution, and use methods such as overt and covert marking of tobacco products to track items from makers to retailers. They suggest manufacturers should be responsible for controlling the supply chain of their products and face serious financial penalties for failing to do so.
The World Health Organisation says smoking kills one third to a half of all those using tobacco, amounting to more than 5 million people a year worldwide.
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