The IRA are set to make a staggering £22 million a year more in counterfeit cigarettes when plain packaging legislation goes through because the packs are so much easier to fake. Police in Ireland have said that pain packaging is “not the solution”, and blamed politicians for creating a “nightmare scenario”.
Various IRA factions already smuggle and sell counterfeit cigarettes manufactured in the Far East, making more than £65 million a year between the groups through the trade. But evidence from police and customs shows that the groups are planning a wholesale switch into manufacturing their own cigarettes when plain packaging rules are introduced in 2016, the Sun has reported.
Currently the gangs hire specialists to create imitation packaging designed to copy legitimate brands. But plain packaging laws do away with all branding on cigarette packets, replacing it with gruesome images of tumours and disease alongside ostentatious health warnings, whilst brand names are reduced to simply the brand name in generic font. This makes the packets much easier to copy for those wanting to create a counterfeit product.
According to official figures from Ireland, 9,836kg (11 tons) of illegal raw tobacco was seized in Ireland last year, more than double the quantity from the previous year. During the same period, illegal cigarette finds halved.
Importing tobacco is not illegal in the UK, but evidence north of the border emerged a few weeks ago when a factory manufacturing illegal cigarettes was found and raided by police in south Armagh. Twelve tonnes of raw tobacco in various treatment stages were seized, and five people were arrested. A police source told the Sun: “We have stopped seizing cigarettes and started seizing raw product. It’s a sea-change.” Two million cigarettes and £50,000 in cash were also seized.
“The IRA are rubbing their hands at plain paper packaging,” the officer continued. “You are dealing with sophisticated outfits that have been smuggling since terrorism started. They’ve switched from guns to cigarettes — and now to tobacco.”
Investigators believe that at least three more factories have already been set up by the IRA, and a fourth is currently being built near Dundalk in County Louth. IRA bosses hope to capitalise on the skills of former workers from a Rothman’s factory located there, which closed down in 2008.
A senior customs officer said: “The IRA are definitely switching from bringing in sticks to manufacturing. Money is their God and there’s more money in manufacturing [the cigarettes] themselves.
“Plain packaging is not the solution, it’s becoming the problem. It’s a gift beyond imagination. Nothing moves across the border without the IRA taking a cut. This is putting tens of millions of pounds into the Real IRA’s coffers. The politicians have created a nightmare scenario.”
HM Revenue and Customs wants to see the law on tobacco imports changed to tackle the new practice of manufacturing illicit goods on British soil. A consultation paper has warned that “Once raw tobacco has entered the UK, it is subject to no controls and could be easily diverted to illegal production of tobacco products.”
Ireland’s criminal assets bureau has tried to track tobacco coming into the country by attaching tracking devices to containers holding tobacco leaf when they enter the country. But officials say the containers are simply driven to remote farms in IRA controlled territory where the devices are removed, and are then transported on to the factories.
Following the containers is impossible due to the remoteness of the location; a car or van is easily spotted on deserted country roads.
The news that IRA terrorists are set to exploit plain packaging rules will come as no surprise to many on the Conservative backbenches, who have been lobbying their leadership to drop the planned vote. Jane Ellison, a junior health minister, took many in the party by surprise when she announced that a vote would take place before the election, claiming that plain packaging was a “proportionate and justified response” to the threat that smoking poses to health.
Her colleague Nick de Bois hit back in a Telegraph article, saying: “What is to prevent the growth of black market cigarettes when there are no longer any distinguishing packaging characteristics for the consumer to care about?”
He said that the measure was an example of “feel good” politics rather than “rational, evidence based policy”, adding: “If standardised packaging does go ahead, that feel good feeling will soon be replaced by the realisation that we’ve got this badly, badly wrong.”
As many as 100 Conservative MPs are expected to vote against the measure when the matter is put to a free vote without a debate next Wednesday, on National No Smoking Day.