Smugglers deride 5% increase in tobacco duty

Three tables of men sporting aggressively short haircuts and tattoos sat hunched over polystyrene cups of coffee, smoke curling from the silver-foil ash trays in front of them at Dover's hovercraft terminal early yesterday. Their mobile phone conversations continued uninterrupted as the Hoverspeed left the Kent port. These were not day trippers but "businessmen".

Slowly, one of them wound his way around the coffee shop, pausing at each table. "Want some ciggies love?" he whispered, barely waiting for a response before gliding on.

As Dawn Primarolo, the Paymaster General, announced that tough new measures where to be introduced to combat tobacco smuggling, the black market business was booming 70 miles away.

A stocky man in a tatty anorak posted himself by the arrivals door seconds before the next group of Hoverspeed passengers flooded out, each laden with carrier bags full of cigarettes. "Get on the bus," he urged, indicating the waiting transport. His business was carried out blatantly with no regard for the security officers standing less than five feet away. "What can we do?" said one guard wearily. "We are here to watch the terminal not them."

Ms Primarolo warned two weeks ago that tobacco smugglers risked losing their cars. A couple of miles outside Dover, almost 200 of them sit impounded by Customs, behind the security gates of an old army barracks.

"We are aware of the threat," said Gary, 45, a builder, "but the savings are so enormous it is well worth our time." With 200 cigarettes costing £17 to £19 - half the price in the UK - it is a tempting gamble.

"It's better than mugging people, " said a former soldier from the Newcastle area. "I can't see what we are doing is wrong. With so much tax on tabs why would anyone want to buy them here?"

Most of those emerging from the terminal yesterday were outraged at the 5-per-cent increase in tobacco duty announced by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, on Tuesday.

"He's having a laugh," said Geoff Stevens, a mechanic from Essex, who, with his wife Lesley, makes a monthly trip to the continent to stock up on cigarettes to the legal limit.

Many of the smokers agreed with Jeff Jeffery, a spokesman for Gallaher, a tobacco manufacturer, that the tax rise would "only serve to further encourage the cigarette smugglers".

"He [the Chancellor] is just making it easier for those selling the cigarettes," said one lorry driver, aged 53, returning with 10 cartons. "If it is easier then they will want to go back [to France] even more often."

Kevin Charles, a spokesman for Hoverspeed, said raising the duty on tobacco would make the situation worse. "You can only throw so many customs officers at the problem. If the duty keeps going up the problem is going to be there."

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