Britain's most successful tobacconist is a small Belgian town

Saturday 05 February 2000 01:00

THERE IS little of obvious interest for the sightseer in the town of Adinkerke. The church and the odd chocolatier, that is about all.

THERE IS little of obvious interest for the sightseer in the town of Adinkerke. The church and the odd chocolatier, that is about all.

But British tourists come in their droves to this tiny Belgian border town about half an hour's drive from Calais. They know what they are looking for and it has nothing to do with sightseeing. They're here for the tobacco.

One road on the edge of town is full of warehouses selling tobacco at a fraction of the UK price. Their business is legitimate - it is many of their customers, who stock up their lorries and vans before returning home to sell it on, who are breaking the law. They call it kamikaze: loading up the vehicle and then driving through Customs with your fingers crossed.

Manufacturers estimate that 80 per cent of rolling tobacco smoked in Britain is smuggled in. But in Adinkerke, no one admits to doing it. All the boxes that are unpacked and reloaded into black bin liners are "for personal consumption, you understand".

The warehouses stand side by side along the busy road. Tobacco Road, Power Tobacco and English Smokers Inc. All are doing a roaring trade.

Since the creation of the European single market in 1993, there is no limit on the amount of duty paid goods that can be brought into Britain from EU markets, provided it is for personal consumption. Only reselling is illegal.

The huge differences in duty between Belgium and Britain mean that 200 Benson & Hedges sell for £18 in Adinkerke against £39.50 in London. A 50g pouch of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco costs £1.65, one-fifth of the British price of £8.09. On 200-pouch boxes the saving is almost £1,300.

Ian, a lorry driver who passes Adinkerke every week, never fails to stop and stock up. "Cigarettes are astronomical in Britain so people go out of their way to come here."

Graham Llewellyn, who has come to Adinkerke on his annual trip to buy a year's supply of tobacco, said: "It makes a world of difference coming here. I only buy for myself because it wouldn't be worth my while to sell it on but I should think lorry drivers can do quite well out of it because they don't have travel costs to cover."

Over at Eastenders, Kathy West is doing a roaring trade. As her daughter Katie flings the cartons under the hatch her mother rings up the total at the till. "£544 - have you got your free Zippo lighter, there's a promotion. You need some more? That's £504 please," she sings out as the cash steadily changes hands.

"We came here five years ago and were the first but now everyone's jumped on the bandwagon and there are 15 of us," she said. "I've built up my trade and I'm not fighting for business because I've made my money and it's just too good to walk away from."

She purses her lips when asked about smuggling but admits that it probably happens. Her daughter is more forthright: "They're only trying to make a living. It's a lot better to smuggle tobacco than rob old women. They're not hurting anybody except the [British] Government."

But many locals disagree. There has been a vigorous campaign against the tobacco warehouses and on 1 February the mayor ordered them to close at 10pm instead of remaining open 24 hours. One shop assistant said that nearby residents had becomedistraught at the noise and late- night activity. "They come all through the night and throw the empty packets down everywhere, they drink beer and throw the bottles away and make a lot of noise. They only come for the cigarettes, not for anything else in the town."

But some of the residents have profited from the tobacconists. They have sold their houses to the traders at hugely inflated prices and moved to the quieter side of town. Their empty homes will be converted into more tobacco stores. At least six are expected to open in the next three months.

Mrs West is relaxed about the competition. "When there is no more money to be made I shall go back to England," she said. "I'm going to open a health farm. It's my way of putting something back."

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