New figures show that alcohol and tobacco smuggling has trebled in the last year alone. Is this our new national sport? By Paul Slade
Rolling tobacco is remarkably versatile stuff - or at least, that is what would-be the smugglers at Dover docks hope that Customs officers will believe.

Staff at Dover have heard every excuse under the sun from smugglers hoping to convince them that they have no intention of selling their contraband load for profit.

Nigel Knott, Customs & Excise spokesman for the South-East, says: "We've been given to understand that rolling tobacco makes very good compost for growing your beans in. Apparently, it is also a very good cure for lumbago if you bathe in it. And it is good for worming horses."

Alcohol smuggling, too, attracts its share of what Nigel Knott calls "founder members of the three-short-planks club". One likely character claimed the beer he was bringing back was for a wedding reception, to be held in a certain village hall. Customs officers detained him while they checked the address, and quickly discovered the hall had been knocked down two years earlier.

Another had 30 recent tickets for trips across the Channel in his glove compartment when Customs searched his van, which rather put paid to his "personal consumption" plea. A third claimed he too was catering for a wedding until officers pointed out that his load meant that everyone there, including the bride and her old gran, would be drinking extra-strength lager.

Nigel Knott says: "All these cases led to confiscation of goods, although not all would necessarily have led to prosecution." The maximum jail sentence for smuggling is six years and 10 months. Confiscation of even a single contraband load is often enough to wipe out the profits of several earlier smuggling runs.

Despite these occasional setbacks, every day scores of vans hop over the Channel for a quick round-trip. The reason is simple: smuggling rolling tobacco is highly lucrative, thanks to the difference in tobacco duty here and across the Channel. According to the UK's Tobacco Manufacturing Association, 50g of Golden Virginia sells to the smoker for around pounds 7.95 here, but can be bought for just pounds 2.23 across the counter in France, a saving of 72 per cent.

But if smugglers really want to make some money, they must bring in far more than the single kilo which each of us is automatically allowed.

Tobacco is particularly tempting to smugglers, as it is light, compact and easy to transport. And it is rolling tobacco which offers the biggest discrepancy between UK and Continental duty.

"As far as the cross-Channel smuggling trade is concerned, rolling tobacco is far and away the worst," says Mark Thomson, another Customs spokesman. Beer comes next in terms of volume, and is particularly popular at this time of year, as people stock up for Christmas.

Martin Ball, of smokers' rights group Forest, says: "There is such a difference in duty that people can afford to buy tobacco abroad, bring it over here illegally, and still sell it at a substantial reduction compared to the retail prices in this country."

This week's report from the Customs & Excise National Investigations Service (NIS) goes so far as to claim that the high potential profits and relatively low penalties have led many drug smugglers to switch from heroin and cocaine to beer and cigarettes as their stock in trade.

NIS figures show that the organisation prevented the loss of pounds 1,719m of excise duty in 1997-98, against just pounds 572m the previous year. Assuming that NIS's success rate does not change dramatically from one year to the next, that would suggest that successful smuggling has also trebled.

Anecdotal evidence on the illegal sale of alcohol and tobacco points the same way. Brian Rees is a past president of the Guild of Master Victuallers, which represents publicans throughout the South East of England.

He says: "It's a very serious problem, not only in this area, but all over the country. Places like Doncaster have got just as big a problem as we have here. The amount that is coming over and being sold on housing estates and at boot sales out of white vans is frightening. I have been told that in this area alone, there are two tons of hand-rolling tobacco coming in every month. I think it's worse now than it's ever been."

Mark Thomson says: "Smugglers have had to create their own outlets, and quite often they will shop to order. They will have people ringing up asking for so-and-so, and they will go and do a trip. They will sell around estates, factories and car parks, and we have seen it in car-boot sales as well."

Legal cross-Channel shopping cut the Government's take from alcohol and tobacco tax by about pounds 235m in 1996, the last year for which Customs has figures. The rule here is that you are allowed to bring back enough alcohol or tobacco for personal consumption or to give away at a social event. But duty is payable on any goods you plan to sell for a profit.

As a rule of thumb, Customs will generally accept the following amounts as being for personal consumption: 110 litres of beer, 90 litres of wine, 20 litres of fortified wine, 10 litres of spirits, 800 cigarettes, 400 cigarillos, 200 cigars and 1 kilo of hand-rolling tobacco.

Nigel Knott estimates the total retail price of this load at pounds 500 on the Continent, or pounds 1,250 here. Customs calls these figures the "indicative limits", and officers at the ports have a pretty good idea of what a full legal load looks like when packed into the family car.

But these are not hard-and-fast limits. If you can persuade Customs - or, ultimately, the courts - that you are genuinely buying beer for a party, you may be allowed to bring in more. Equally, Customs will not let you bring in even the amounts above if you try to do so too frequently. Here they will consider factors such as the shelf life of the tobacco you are carrying or the sell-by date on the beer.

Mark Thomson says: "People can bring back more than the indicative levels, but they may have to justify it to us. If they fail to convince us that it is for their own personal use, we will seize it and - depending on the amount - we may prosecute as well.

"When someone tries to justify bringing in 200kg of hand-rolling tobacco by saying they chop in up in the bath and use it to cure their lumbago, then frankly we find that incredible - and so did the magistrate."