Alpesh Patel
Londis, Crouch End, London

With an overwhelming product selection, which includes household items such as toasters, as well as a wealth of exotic fruits and a strong vegetarian range, Alpesh knows that variety is the spice of life.

Nigel Dowdney
Earlham Shopper & Stalham Shopper, Swainsthorpe

Nigel, a director of the Redorange group, and his wife Sharon have proved that it's not just the big boys who know how to run an effective business model.

Malcolm Crump
Spar Compton, Wolverhampton

Malcolm runs Spar Compton with brother Gordon and has 40 years of retail experience. He always has his ear to the ground to ensure he stays on top of consumer trends.

Jeremy Blackburn
Head of communications for the UK, JTI

Jeremy gained extensive industry knowledge by working in sales, and developed a trade communications function within marketing before moving to his current role.

How is the illicit tobacco trade affecting your business?

Malcolm: I can't say exactly how much the illegal trade is affecting my store, but it's certainly having an impact on sales such a small fraction of the illicit traders reported actually get caught.

Nigel: I've got a shop on a housing estate and it effects me enormously. We've seen a decline in tobacco sales over a number of years. White vans drive around selling illicit tobacco and alcohol on the estate. In fact, some of my own staff have admitted that they buy tobacco there rather than in my store because it's so much cheaper.

Alpesh: The full impact of what is happening is difficult to pinpoint, but there is a lot of illicit trading going on in central London and it clearly is having a very negative effect on sales for myself and convenience retailers everywhere.

Are you aware of any illicit tobacco traders operating in your area?

Malcolm: I don't know of anyone in particular, but I'd certainly shop them if I found out about it. It's not just retailers who are losing out because of their activities the whole country is.

Nigel: I found out that one of my staff, whom I'd already dismissed for other reasons, was involved in selling illegal tobacco. He was taking orders at my shop and then selling the stuff from his home. I reported him to the police, but they said it was a job for Customs & Excise, so I reported it to them as well. As far as I know, the man is still dealing in illicit tobacco.

Alpesh: I'm aware of it in a wider sense, but I don't know of any specific traders. If I did find out that someone was doing it in my area then I'd report it to the authorities. If everyone did that then we'd really see results.

Do you think the problem is growing?

Malcolm: I see no reason for it to be decreasing, because we don't seem to be tackling the problem properly. There needs to be more of a presence at borders and more than just spot-checks at the docks. If people board a plane they're searched and scanned.

Nigel: It's growing, without a doubt. Criminals are becoming more brazen and there's a profit motive so more people are getting involved.

Alpesh: Yes, the problem is definitely growing.

Jeremy: Following the 4% increase in tobacco duty in the recent budget [March 2010], JTI believes the decision to return to a policy of duty escalation above inflation will seriously undermine progress made in reducing tobacco smuggling.

Countries such as the UK and Ireland with higher tax levels face huge problems with illicit tobacco sales as smugglers see the opportunity to generate lucrative profits.

HMRC estimates that up to 54% of hand-rolling and 17% of cigarettes consumed in the UK are smuggled and that the resulting loss in tax revenue is about £3bn. Recent stats from HMRC also show that 93% of large seizures comprise counterfeit and 'cheap white' cigarettes shipped to the UK by organised criminals.

What can be done to encourage retailers to report illicit tobacco trading?

Malcolm: People need to wake up and realise that it's no good moaning and groaning about the issue without taking any action. At least if you give evidence against an illegal trader then you've done your bit.

Nigel: There need to be more prosecutions. On my estate you always hear people saying don't ring the authorities because nothing gets done. I would still report it, though. It would be great to monitor the reports of illegal trading and correlate them with the prosecutions, so that people felt more motivated to report this type of crime.

Alpesh: I think it's just a case of us retailers sticking together. People need to accept that the problem isn't going to stop overnight, but that doesn't mean you should give up.

Jeremy: Retailers should call the confidential helpline 0800 595 000, or ring JTI on 0800 181 519 to report issues relating to the sale of illegal cigarettes.

Retailers should be aware that their call and the information they give is likely to form part of the evidence that may or may not convict a criminal. Just because nothing happens the next day it does not mean that the information will not be used by the authorities. So make the call and defend your business from criminals who are stealing customers from you.

What impact do you think a tobacco display ban will have?

Malcolm: It will increase the trade in illicit tobacco as it will drive it further underground.

Nigel: It will encourage the problem. Illicit tobacco glamorises smoking to those underage and the display ban will do nothing to help matters.

Alpesh: It will kill off retail sales and encourage illegal sales.

Jeremy: The proposed display ban is likely to further increase illegal activities while impeding and restricting lawful ones, by making illicit tobacco products easier to distribute.

It is likely to provide an open door for tobacco smugglers, who do not care what age their customers are.

Since the display ban was introduced in Ireland in July 2009, it would appear that criminals have specifically targeted the Irish market and made counterfeit 'Irish brands', which include Irish health warnings. Within the first two weeks of the ban, Irish Customs found eight retailers selling counterfeit products.

How has the illicit tobacco trade evolved over the past few years?

Malcolm: Numbers are increasing once people realise that illicit tobacco isn't getting picked up on they will continue to smuggle illegal goods into the UK.

Nigel: We sell far more hand-rolling tobacco now than cigarettes as people have traded down during the recession. In the illegal market, I imagine that cigarettes are still a strong seller as illicit traders will sell them off cheap.

Alpesh: There are definitely more illicit tobacco sales going on in public places now because it's easy money and it's cash in hand for those involved.

Jeremy: Illicit trade creates a circle of consequence. Counterfeit and sub-standard quality of product entering the market means:

l tax revenue loss for government

l failure of legitimate business versus profit for organised crime

l encourages ordinary people to break the law "perception of a victimless crime"

l fag/tab houses allow access to children.

JTI believes that international agreements and procedures should be enhanced through continued and sustained communication between tobacco manufacturers and governments.

Other than cutting the tax on cigarettes, what more should the government be doing to reduce the illicit tobacco trade?

Malcolm: If people thought they'd get caught they wouldn't do it. It's really a case of investing in more resources at the borders.

Nigel: They need to be more pro-active in looking at how cigarettes get into the country and prosecute street sellers let's get some heavy fines in place.

Alpesh: They should look more closely at how illicit tobacco is getting into the UK and invest in more manpower to prevent it. Jeremy: JTI works on a technical and an executive level with government authorities to fight contraband and counterfeit goods. JTI is committed to further establishing mutually beneficial co-operation arrangements with governments across the world.

As part of the aforementioned efforts, JTI signed a 15-year agreement with the European Commission and 26 member states of the European Union on December 14, 2007. The agreement defines our co-operation to combat the illegal trade of cigarettes in the European territory. The UK government has recently signed up to JTI's anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. Details of the agreement are available at

Should the new government make clamping down on the illicit tobacco trade a priority?

Malcolm: I think they should all parties make a fuss about it, but what we need is action.

Nigel: The first thing they should do is reverse the tobacco display ban and then take action on illicit tobacco sales.

Alpesh: Yes, without a doubt.

Jeremy: Yes. JTI also believes co-operation is critical in that neither the tobacco industry nor governments can solve problems associated with illicit trade of tobacco products on their own.
Do you think people involved in the illicit tobacco trade are also involved in other criminal activity?
Malcolm: It is inevitable that some are they're criminals so they're probably open to anything, from illicit tobacco to alcohol and drugs. Nigel: Smuggling or selling illicit tobacco is the start of a criminal career it's a step on the ladder. It's not seen as a major crime by the man on the street, but it's costing millions of pounds. If people are willing to flout the law in this way, then what's to stop them moving on to heroin? Alpesh: I think if you're a criminal then you'll be interested in any way to make easy money they are sure to be involved in other criminal areas as well. Jeremy: The UK market has now been targeted by criminals seeking to make a quick profit and they are doing so on a large scale. It is very likely that the same criminals who are involved in smuggling tobacco are involved in other crimes.
What else can retailers do to reduce the illicit tobacco trade?
Malcolm: We need to tackle the people who are buying the stuff. Unfortunately, a lot of them are retailers and we need to throw the book at them. Also, retailers need to be more vigilant if they do spot illegal traders then they need to take a note of registration numbers of their vehicles so that the police really have something to go on. 

Nigel: Apart from shopping people if they are trading in illicit tobacco, and telling people not to get involved in it, there's not much else you can do until the government starts to take action. 

Alpesh: You should write to your MP to raise awareness of the issue. You can also campaign through your symbol group for the authorities to do more. 

Jeremy: Our advice to c-store retailers is to be vigilant at all times; only buy from legitimate sources and encourage your customers to do the same.