Rehman Chishti MP: Time to increase maximum legal penalty for illicit tobacco sales
We all like a bargain, but sometimes that deal may not be all that it seems. If you’re ever offered cheap cigarettes, be wary: there’s a reason they are so cheap.
These knock-down price cigarettes are probably knocked off – having been smuggled into the country or illegally manufactured by those with links to organised criminal gangs.
Those counterfeiting or smuggling these cigarettes are breaking the law and don’t care about the quality of the products. This is why they often have varying quantities of tobacco and have been found to contain asbestos, mould, dead flies or even excrement.
The sale of illicit tobacco is hurting our local shops, which are losing legitimate sales. It also deprives the Government of more than £2 billion in unpaid duty every year. That’s £2 billion which could be used to further improve our public services, our schools and hospitals, and provide pensions for working people.
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There is some evidence that it also makes it easier for children to have access to tobacco products. Fraudulent shops don’t care who they sell their illegal products to, and this can allow children to start smoking below the legal age of 18 for buying cigarettes.
My constituency has felt the impact of this illegal trade. A few years ago, Gillingham in Kent was named as the “capital of illicit cigarette sales” after it was found that 55% of cigarette packages sold in the town contained illegal tobacco.
Trading Standards, the Police and HMRC have worked hard to take action against those who have broken the law. Since 2000, more than 26 billion cigarettes and 4,300 tonnes of hand rolling tobacco has been seized across the country.
In my own local authority area of Medway, they have seized more than 68,000 illegal cigarettes and 21 kilos or rolling tobacco since August last year. Two shops caught selling illicit tobacco have been closed down. Astonishingly they were estimated to be making up to £25,000 a week from these illegal sales.
Shop owners that choose to break the law risk their livelihoods. They can face financial penalties and even seven years imprisonment. The shop can also lose its alcohol licence, ability to sell tobacco and lottery tickets - although some of these powers have only been used a few times. When I contacted Camelot they told me that in their 20 year history, only "a handful of outlets have had their terminal removed as a result of confirmed illegal non-National Lottery activity.”
Despite the risk of receiving fines and imprisonment, the problem continues in my constituency and across the country. There is scope for improvement and this is why last month I urged the Prime Minister at PMQs to consider tougher penalties, and to increase the maximum legal penalty to bring it in line with the supply of Class C drugs.
Currently, a person could get up to seven years imprisonment for tobacco offences, whilst those caught supplying Class C drugs can be sentenced up to 14 years. Such a change would discourage people from buying and selling illicit tobacco, which is an inferior product, harms local businesses and supports criminal gangs.
Rehman Chishti is the Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham