The expanding illicit trade of tobacco and cigarette products within the United Kingdom has raised serious concern with regards to the damage it causes to public health and to legitimate businesses. There has been a constant focus on developing better, more efficient ways of tackling the issue, from government funded schemes to local trading standards inspections and private investigations carried out by brand protection operatives.
My first experience with brand protection investigations has been with NetWatch Global’s sister company, The Surveillance Group. I have been working closely with the company as an undercover operative focusing on carrying out test purchases at various premises around the West Midlands, from Oxfordshire to Herefordshire and even Birmingham city. This provided a more personal experience and understanding into the extent of illicit tobacco trade and the danger it poses to public health and safety as well as undermining legitimate businesses.
These investigations revealed an alarming trend in illicit cigarette trade, specifically smuggled or stolen goods that have been imported from East European countries such as Poland, Ukraine or Romania. During a regular test purchase day, I have been able to secure packs of cigarettes for as low as £3.00 compared to an average price of £12.00 for the legally sold products. As such, it is easy see the appeal of illicit goods for consumers, who would much rather spend less than half the product’s price for allegedly the same quality. However, time and time again we have been able to determine the real contents of these products and the results are alarming, to say the least. Some of the contents identified in smuggled tobacco and cigarette packs include pesticides, asbestos or even arsenic, which pose an elevated danger to the public’s health and safety.
Brand protection investigations also provide a clearer image with regards to the impact the illicit tobacco trade has on the market. Statistics revealed that the illicit market reached a substantially higher proportion of the total market, with an approximate ‘tax gap’ of £2.5bn of lost revenue on a yearly basis. This can be easily observed when considering the high amount of local businesses who are currently making a substantial income from illicit trade. Usually, I find myself visiting an average of 10 premises during one day of test purchases, with at least two or three investigations carried out per month; definitely a very lucrative business for many shop owners.
Interestingly, illicit sellers have not limited themselves within the boundaries of their own shops. Social media platforms such as Facebook have seen a rise in advertisements containing smuggled or counterfeit cigarette and tobacco products selling for the low low price of £5.00/pack for brands such as Marlboro, L&M and Richmond, usually imported from Poland or Romania. Similarly to test purchasing investigations, here at NetWatch Global we have been successful in securing vital information with regards to the name, location and contact details of illicit sellers, providing an important step into the right direction of combating the illicit market in the UK.