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Plain packs – exploding the smuggling myth

by Robin Hewings | Analysis

23 November 2012

1 comment 1 comment


Tobacco industry claims on cigarette packaging are nonsense

A quarter of all cancer deaths are caused by smoking. Our research tells us that plain packaging will make cigarettes less attractive to young people and help cut the number who are drawn into this deadly addiction. It would mean that all cigarette packs look the same – with no branding but with large health warnings.

The tobacco industry hates the idea. While the UK government considers the pros and cons of plain packs, they’ve been spending millions (requires registration) on adverts claiming that it will massively increase smuggling because the new packs will be easier to forge.

If true, this would be a big problem. Illicit cigarettes make it cheaper to smoke, leading to more people smoking – and more people dying from cancer.

To see if their claims stack up, we asked for the view of an international tobacco smuggling expert, Luk Joossens, whose career has seen him advise the World Bank, the European Commission and the World Health Organisation on this issue. And today we’ve published Joossens’ detailed report on the matter, which you can download here.

Joossens’ key point is that cigarette counterfeiters find all existing packs easy to forge – a fact acknowledged by the tobacco industry itself. In fact, recent industry documents acknowledge that elaborate tax stamps, with innovative holograms and special inks, are “easily” forged. In a document outlining anti-counterfeit methods, Philip Morris says “counterfeiters can make copies of even the most sophisticated paper stamps in three weeks”.

According to Joossens, counterfeit packs are so cheap to make they can hardly become much cheaper. So plain packaging cannot significantly affect their final price. The overall cost of manufacturing a 20-pack of counterfeit cigarettes is around 10 to 15 pence – of which up to a third is estimated to be on packaging. They are typically sold in the UK for around £3.

The report also shows that government action has been extremely effective in cutting the illicit trade. Today, smuggled cigarettes, on which no tax is paid, account for about nine percent of cigarettes smoked in this country. This has fallen from 21 per cent in 2000/01. But, of course, we want it to fall further.

After spending decades denying that tobacco caused cancer or that smoking was addictive, we’re used to the tobacco companies’ dubious claims. But what makes their concern for illicit tobacco extraordinary is their track record of facilitating smuggling. This has led to agreements where they made payments of hundreds of millions of pounds to the authorities in the UK, EU and Canada.

The tobacco companies exported billions of cigarettes to countries where they had no existing market share. These were then smuggled back to this country. As a new MP, George Osborne – the current Chancellor – was part of an inquiry into this problem. He said to the chief executive of Imperial Tobacco: “One comes to the conclusion that you are either crooks or you are stupid, and you do not look very stupid.”

Luk Joossens concludes his report with this simple statement:

“Plain packaging will not make any difference to the counterfeit business.”

So we can give millions of children one less reason to start smoking, without fear of the tobacco industry’s false claims about cigarette smuggling.


  • sean
    29 November 2012

    What a stupid idea. Plain packaging will make it it easier for counterfeiters…. go ahead though, I’ll start my own fake cig biz


  • sean
    29 November 2012

    What a stupid idea. Plain packaging will make it it easier for counterfeiters…. go ahead though, I’ll start my own fake cig biz