The Covid-19 crisis has created the perfect storm for the illicit trade industry
The border crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland | Ian Paisley called Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK a “joining point for world criminality” and said that the tobacco industry is “key to the solution to solving illicit trade” | Credit: PA Images
A fall in GDP, lower consumer income and the global Covid crisis have created the “perfect storm” for illicit trade to thrive in, said Ian Paisley MP.
Speaking at a virtual panel event hosted by JTI, Ian Paisley, the DUP MP for North Antrim, said that a combination of the Covid crisis, Brexit and new trade opportunities have created the “perfect storm” for illicit trade organisations, resulting in “a crime epidemic that has got to be stopped”.
Ian Paisley called Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK a “joining point for world criminality” and said that the tobacco industry is “key to the solution to solving illicit trade”, as well as calling for stricter regulations on social media platforms.
A study conducted by international tobacco product manufacturer JTI recently revealed how illicit trade has evolved during the Covid crisis, as well as how criminals are planning to profit from it in the economic aftermath.
Despite the report emphasising the importance of partnership between organisations and governments as a key part of the solution in tackling global illicit trade, Director General of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, Phil Lewis, said that the collaborative approach towards eradicating illicit trade was under threat due to the UK’s withdrawal of the European Union.
“Data flows as a result of Brexit are at risk,” he said. “There are a number of information and intelligence exchange databases that we may lose sight of because there are no rules in the EU that allow third countries to be part of this.”
While the production of illegal products has been blunted by the coronavirus crisis, Ian Monteith, Global Director of Anti-Illicit Tobacco Operations at JTI, said that organised crime has been left unfazed by the situation, citing their flexible approach “dynamic”.
“Criminals have become more resourceful. They diversified and went straight into producing PPE and alcohol, they were very dynamic in what they were able to do.”
The Global Director went on to say that a “major threat going forward is whether they will diversify into the vaccine for Covid.”
Counterfeiters are resourceful and they’ve already found the internet irresistible, it gives them greater access to suppliers, transporters, business, buyers and what’s really important - consumers.
Also speaking on the panel, MP and Vice Chair at Illicit Trade APPG, Kenny MacAskill, emphasised the urgency in highlighting illicit trade - especially the illegal tobacco trade - as not being seen as a victimless crime.
“People aren’t going to listen to the fact that it’s illegal, that they’re not paying tax and even some of the other dangers it comes with,” he said.
The Vice Chair at Illicit Trade APPG went on to say that the consequences of enabling and driving demand for the illegal tobacco trade need to be emphasised on a local level.
“You need to point out that the local trader is hanging on by his fingertips,” he said
“They’re the ones that have been open during the pandemic and are struggling to survive. If you buy off the back of a lorry or from a cheap deal on the internet you’re putting them out of business, and you’re going to put your community out of work,” he continued.
“To an extent that works a lot better than the moral case which can sometimes go over people’s heads. Human trafficking is something that people can’t relate to as it hasn’t happened to them.”
The report detailed that crime organisations have adopted a “wait and see” philosophy, while also moving away from the more traditional sales outlets towards a more technological approach.
This combined with a change in law enforcement priorities and border restrictions lead to organised crime units becoming more resourceful in the face of the global coronavirus crisis.
The report named three factors which contributed towards an increase in the price of illegal tobacco.
A reduction in cheap tobacco, a decline in consumers’ incomes and a high demand for the product during a period of anxiety were all named as key contributors.
With these three elements driving demand for the illegal tobacco trade, the UK has seen organised crime units turn to increasingly resourceful ways to overcome the national restrictions.
Recruiting essential workers to deliver to their customers and hiding illicit tobacco under PPE to escape detection are a few of the innovative ways criminals are selling illegal products during the coronavirus crisis.
Lewis of the Anti-Counterfeiting Group said that the harnessing of technology is perhaps the biggest innovation that organised crime gangs have adopted in the wake of the Covid crisis.
“The restrictions meant that high volume container trafficking became hard for the criminals, but they quickly recognised the shift and moved to online supply and that’s not likely to stop anytime soon,” he says.
“Counterfeiters are resourceful and they’ve already found the internet irresistible, it gives them greater access to suppliers, transporters, business, buyers and what’s really important - consumers.”
“Illicit traders are paying influencers on social media which enables them to sell more easily and feeds direct door to door traffic.
“It makes it difficult for enforcers and has given us a lot of insight into how quickly criminals move and of trends they develop,” he continued.
Monteith explained that a decline in high container traffic and the online expansion for organised crime has resulted in illicit trade being harder to manage on a local level.
“The vast growth in small parcels delivered directly to people's doors is hugely more difficult to deal with by enforcers.”
Not only is the move to sophisticated sales’ sites enabling illicit trade, but social media and the use of mobile apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp have also been adopted to boost sales of illegal products on a more local level.
To find out more about illicit trade, you can read JTI's report The Gathering Storm, illegal trade during Covid-19
Further information can also be found in the Illicit Trade APPG’s report and on the ACG website