COUNTERFEIT cigarettes being bought and sold in the Capital are linked to serious organised crime, including people smuggling, experts have warned.
Customs officials – working around the clock to stem the flow of illegal tobacco into the city – said seizures of counterfeit and illicit tobacco and cigarettes are going up “year on year”.
The warning follows a series of test purchasing raids which found imported tax-free contraband being sold freely across Edinburgh with the illegal goods available to buy in one in five venues checked.
HM Revenue and Customs spokesman Ron Barrie said excise bosses were working closely with the UK Border Agency officials to tackle the crime – estimated to cost the Scottish retail trade £300 million a year.
He said criminal networks had turned to the illicit trade as it was deemed to carry lesser risks – and lower prison sentences – than drug trafficking.
He added: “Organised crime as a business don’t really care what they do. Obviously people that are bringing in large quantities of tobacco products are going to be part of an organised crime network.
“It could be these criminals are involved in people smuggling for a few weeks, then they might decide there’s less risk if they smuggle tobacco for a month or two.
“Years ago when the European market opened up, there were a lot more entrepreneurs that took their van over and back, but now it tends to be that they’re bringing container loads into the country. The Border Force are the first point of contact, then it falls to us once they’re in Scotland.”
Enforcement agencies and industry giants are expected to attend the first Scottish Anti Illicit Trade Summit which will be hosted in Edinburgh next month.
Organised by the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, the two-day conference at Murrayfield Stadium will look at the scourge of illegal cigarettes, alcohol and other goods.
Matt Lancashire, manager of the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA) for Scotland, said he had been contacted by numerous Edinburgh retailers which had been hit by lost sales.
He said: “The scale of illicit and cross border tobacco consumption in Scotland cost the Scottish retail trade an estimated £300m in lost sales in 2012. This is equivalent to a loss in turnover of £24,000 for each of the 5400 small shops operating in the country. These alarming figures provide an indication of the impact on Edinburgh businesses, as consumers, faced with higher prices and falling incomes, feel compelled to buy cheaper illicit products from criminals who may have links to organised crime.”
Industry giant Japan Tobacco International, which has carried out research into the issue, said most people buying the counterfeit goods were largely unaware of the dangers.
Company spokesman Mark Yexley said: “Law enforcement agencies across the world have identified links between tobacco smuggling and globalised crime. The man or woman in the street who sells illegal cigarettes could be the front for a criminal supply chain that can span the globe. The £5 spent by a smoker on illegal cigarettes in Edinburgh today can potentially fund major global criminals and terrorist organisations tomorrow.”