Anyone found in possession of smuggled cigarettes will face a £5,000 fine in Britain's biggest clampdown on the illegal tobacco trade, the Government said yesterday. The tough penalty is the centrepiece of a £209m campaign unveiled by the Treasury yesterday to reduce the £2.3bn lost in duty every year through bootlegging.
An extra 1,000 Customs officers and intelligence staff will be deployed and X-ray scanners will be installed at ports and airports. From 1 April, 2001, all tobacco products will have a clear pack mark to indicate that British duty has been paid. Anyone possessing, selling or dealing in unmarked cigarettes faces the £5,000 fine.
Dawn Primarolo, the Paymaster General, pledged to halt the rise in the illegal trade in three years and set Customs and Excise targets of seizing more than 10 billion cigarettes.
But critics said that Gordon Brown's decision to increase tobacco tax by 5 per cent in his Budget yesterday would increase smuggling of cheap cigarettes from Europe and the Middle East. One in five cigarettes smoked in Britain is smuggled; packets of 20 are up to £2 cheaper in countries such as Belgium and Spain.
Ms Primarolo said that the new pack marks would mean anyone would know immediately whether they were dealing with legitimate goods.
"Tobacco smuggling is unacceptable - it undermines our aims to reduce smoking, which is a single greatest cause of preventable premature death," she said. "It denies honest taxpayers the money for high quality public services and it has disturbing links to other serious criminal activities."
Ms Primarolo said that the clampdown would break the 180 organised gangs driving the trade, and would gather £50m in criminal assets from them.
Paul Mason, spokesman for the Tobacco Alliance, representing 26,000 independent retailers in the United Kingdom, said: "Yesterday's tax rise means it will be business as usual for Bootleg Britain. Unless the UK has realistic levels of tobacco tax, compared with our EU partners, bootlegging will continue."