A peer-reviewed study has found that, far from the industry being a victim of smuggling, there are credible allegations that it has been complicit in facilitating illegal trade in its products.
A report by Sir Cyril Chantler, reviewing the public health benefits of plain packaging, is due to be delivered to the government this week. It was commissioned after a row about David Cameron's election strategist Lynton Crosby, whose lobbying company represents tobacco interests. PMI, which makes Marlboro cigarettes and is a client of Crosby's company, has warned that plain packaging would encourage smuggling.
However the new study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, claims such arguments must be viewed sceptically.
Professor Anna Gilmore of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath said: "We found that from early 2008 until early 2011 there were absolutely no media stories citing industry data on illicit sales of tobacco, despite levels being far higher then than they are now. Then suddenly, just after the possibility of plain packaging was announced, we saw an increase in such stories, which have continued since. This, and the fact that leaked documents show that illicit trade was to be one of the industry's key arguments against plain packs, suggests this is a deliberate strategy."
Gilmore said industry claims that the use of illicit cigarettes in the UK was sharply increasing were "wholly inconsistent" with historical trends and recent independent data.
The paper also states: "There is growing evidence that the tobacco companies are still involved in the illicit trade. There is evidence of significant overproduction of cigarettes in markets such as Ukraine and Belarus and we know these excess cigarettes end up in the illegal market."
Many of the tobacco industry's claims about smuggled tobacco are based on its own studies examining discarded packs at high-profile venues such as racecourses and football stadiums. But Gilmore questioned the reliability of such studies.
"Tobacco industry data on the illicit trade is totally unreliable," she said. "Their methodology is never fully transparent. Their misleading claims about illicit should be seen for what they are – a desperate bid to prevent plain packaging from being implemented."
The industry has been robust in fighting its corner. It has commissioned numerous studies that claim that standardised packs would see an increase in smuggling – something that could deprive the Exchequer of billions of pounds. Itfiercely rejects claims that it encourages the selling of its own products on the black market, pointing out that it funds a range of counter-smuggling initiatives.Official customs figures published earlier this month in Australia, the first country to introduce plain packs, revealed that the measure has had almost no effect on tobacco smuggling. "This offical data from Australian customs is the final nail in the coffin for the tobacco industry's argument that plain packs will increase illicit," Gilmore said. "Yet again the industry's lies are exposed."
Deborah Arnott of health charity Ash, said the tobacco industry had paid vast sums to consultancies and thinktanks "to produce dubious reports against plain standardised packaging of cigarettes, which make up in size what they lack in academic rigour.
"The oft-repeated argument that smuggling will increase if branding is removed runs counter to all independent evidence and is no longer credible."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010