Four times more people die from the effects of smuggled tobacco than from all illicit drugs combined, according to an article published in the British Medical Journal* today (Friday).

An international team of tobacco control experts, led by Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco studies Professor Robert West, suggest that four thousand deaths could be prevented in the UK each year if smuggling was abolished.

Low income smokers are more likely to smoke smuggled cigarettes and smoking is responsible for much of the social class difference in death rates in the UK. People from lower income backgrounds are twice as likely to die from smoking related illnesses than people from high income backgrounds.

Cancer Research UK’s Robert West, based at University College London, said: “Smuggled tobacco is more dangerous than duty-paid tobacco because it brings tobacco onto the market cheaply, making cigarettes more affordable. Cost is a major deterrent to smoking and the availability of cheap cigarettes, often for sale at half to a third of their official price, removes or greatly weakens the price incentive to quit.

“If we are to lower smoking rates and reduce health inequalities in this country, the Government needs to treat tobacco smuggling as a national emergency and act now to stop the trade.”

Figures from HM Customs and Revenue suggest that 22 per cent of all tobacco smoked in the UK is smuggled – the equivalent to 18 billion cigarettes out of the total market of 82 billion. This is made up in the form of cigarettes, hand-rolled tobacco and ‘counterfeit’ cigarettes.

The researchers estimate that eliminating smuggling could lead to an overall fall in the number of cigarettes smoked by around five per cent. The number of deaths caused by smoking is broadly proportionate to total cigarette consumption so if the current death rate arising from current smoking prevalence in UK of 80,000 was reduced by five per cent, 4,000 fewer people would die. This compares to around 1000 deaths that are attributable each year to heroin and cocaine combined most of which is smuggled from abroad.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who co-authored the article, said: “A further crackdown on smuggling is necessary. The government abolished public targets for reducing the percentage of smuggled tobacco this year, just as responsibility for control at the borders is being handed from HM Revenue and Customs to the UK Border Agency. We strongly urge the Government to publish new targets and make them a joint responsibility for HMRC and the UK Border Agency so they can be held accountable for their performance in reducing smuggling. We also want the government to support the negotiations, currently underway, for a strong international treaty to tackle tobacco smuggling.”

Jean King, director of tobacco control at Cancer Research UK, said: “Smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer. The fact is that half of all lifetime smokers will die from cancer or another smoking-related illness. To date, the Government’s response to tobacco smuggling has been weak so we welcome this call for increased anti-smuggling measures.”

For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264059.


* Why combating tobacco smuggling is a priority – BMJ 2008;337:a1933

Robert West, Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre

Joy Townsend, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Luk Joossens, Framework Convention Alliance, Brussels, Belgium

Deborah Arnott, Action on Smoking and Health

Sarah Lewis, University of Nottingham

Smoking and cancer

Smoking is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer in the world and accounts for one in four UK cancer deaths.

Smoking causes nine in ten cases of lung cancer in the UK. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer, after breast cancer. There are over 38,300 new cases each year and more than 33,000 people die from the disease.

Men are more likely to be affected by lung cancer, but the number of women with lung cancer has been increasing. Lung cancer rates for UK men have decreased by more than 40 per cent in the last thirty years reflecting the decrease in smoking rates in men since the mid-1970s. Female lung cancer rates in the UK have increased by more than 50 per cent in the last thirty years due to the increase in smoking rates in women.

Smoking also increases the risk of over a dozen other cancers including cancers of the mouth, larynx (voice box), oesophagus (food pipe), liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bladder, cervix, as well as some types of leukaemia.

Half of all smokers eventually die from lung cancer or another smoking-related illnesses. And a quarter of smokers die in middle age – between 35 and 69.

The good news is that most of these deaths are preventable by giving up smoking in time. The best way to reduce the risk of cancer is to give up smoking completely.

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