Leeds’s most senior public health official has said the availability of illicit cigarettes is not on the rise after a report claimed they are “incredibly easy to obtain” in the city.
Dr Ian Cameron, Leeds City Council Director of Public Health, was responding to the results of a two-day study of illicit tobacco in Leeds by former Metropolitan Police detective Will O’Reilly.
Mr O’Reilly’s visit last month was the latest in a series of reports he has written on behalf of Philip Morris International, an American cigarette and tobacco firm.
In his report, Mr O’Reilly said his team purchased 107 separate packs of illicit cigarettes, one carton of illicit cigarettes and one 50g pouch of roll-your-own tobacco over two days.
He said: “Overall we found illicit tobacco products incredibly easy to obtain in Leeds.”
Dr Cameron said in response: “We take the devastating impact of smoking tobacco seriously, especially underage sales and the availability of cheaper sources of tobacco.
“The good news is that official figures show the illicit tobacco trade in the UK is not rising, as the tobacco industry and its front groups routinely claim.”
He added: “According to HM Revenue & Customs figures, in 2013/14 an estimated 10 per cent of cigarettes in the UK were illicit.
“Effective enforcement action by HM Revenue and Customs and Border Force nationally, and action at the European and local levels too, has helped halve the level of illicit tobacco in the UK since 2000.
“The tobacco industry’s latest myth is that standardised packaging of cigarette products could increase illicit trade: this is, of course, false. The bottom line is, tobacco smuggling can be fought while we also cut smoking rates.”
Mr O’Reilly’s report said his “test purchasers commented that they found illicit tobacco products very easily obtainable across the city”.
He said: “Because of time constraints many areas were not visited and it’s highly probable that many more outlets could have been found.
“This availability has been reflected in the prices charged with illicit cigarettes being as cheap in Leeds as we have found in other recent UK test purchase activities.”
He said that purchases were made from 46 shops as well as one from “an individual who arrived at a public house offering cartons for sale from a bag”.
Mr O’Reilly said: “A few other public houses were visited but such was the well-known availability of cheap illicit tobacco products in retail shops that the test purchasers were invariably directed to a nearby shop.
“It is thought that for the same reason that there is a lack of sellers on Internet sites compared to similar populated cities. Overall we found illicit tobacco products incredibly easy to obtain in Leeds.”
He said the most common type of illicit tobacco found in the city was ‘illicit whites’, cigarettes “produced in one market and primarily smuggled into and sold in another market where they have no legal distribution”.
‘Fest Red’ and ‘Jin Ling’ illicit white cigarettes were bought for as little as £2.50 a pack, while other branded cigarettes for the same price were “poorly printed and packaged”, and “suspected to be counterfeit”.
Describing the purchase in the pub near Leeds railway station, Mr O’Reilly said “an individual entered offering cartons of cigarettes for sale from a bag to the customers drinking inside and at the tables outside.”
He added: “The test purchaser bought a carton of a well-known brand that was poorly printed for £35. The individual then agreed to pose for a photograph handing over the cigarettes.”
According to health experts in Leeds, illegal tobacco traders make it easier for children to start smoking, harder for adults to stop and brings crime into local communities.
The trade has also been linked to the funding of terrorist activities and is said by HM Revenue and Customs to cost the taxpayer £2.1bn a year in unpaid taxes.
This year West Yorkshire Trading Standards relaunched a campaign aimed at reducing supply and demand for illegal tobacco, including stopping dealers who sell to children.
And earlier in 2016 more than 37,000 cigarettes and 22kg of illegal tobacco worth more than £10,000 were seized in the county during a large scale operation against illegal tobacco.
Scott Crosby, Regional Tobacco Control Policy Manager for Yorkshire and the Humber, said: “Smoking kills thousands of people every year in Leeds and all tobacco – whether it is legal or illegal - contains a deadly mix of 5,000 chemicals and causes 16 different types of cancer.
“The tobacco companies would like us to believe that illegal tobacco is out of control - but smoking has fallen by nearly a third in the last decade and the illegal tobacco market nationally has halved.”