Significantly, it is availability, rather than price, that seems to determine the level of illicit trade, the research suggests a finding that runs directly counter to the arguments proffered by the tobacco industry say the authors, including Professor Anna Gilmore from the University’s Tobacco Control Research Group in the Department for Health.
They base their findings on a representative population sample of 1000 people from each of 18 European countries: Albania; Austria; Bulgaria; Czech Republic; Croatia; England; Finland; France; Greece; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Latvia; Poland; Portugal; Romania; Spain, and Sweden.
Only tobacco purchased from unauthorised sources or sold at very heavily discounted prices from legitimate retailers was defined as having been illicitly traded.
Health warnings and / or tax stamps that were either absent / inappropriate / tampered with, or clearly those of a duty free outlet were deemed the hallmarks of smuggled products.
Among the 18,056 participants, some 5,268 (27 per cent of the sample) classified themselves as current smokers; the final analysis was based on the responses of 5,114.
When quizzed about the provenance of their tobacco products, most respondents said they had bought them from a legal source. Just four per cent said that they had purchased their tobacco illegally, amounting to 296 packs.
The only distinguishing feature of the purchasers of illicitly traded products was their educational attainment: those with low levels were significantly more likely to buy them.
Two thirds (65.5 per cent) of illicitly traded packs had an inappropriate health warning; half had an inappropriate tax stamp; and just over one in four (27 per cent) had been bought at a knock down price.
The prevalence of illicit manufactured packs of 10 and 20 cigarettes was 5.9%, and 11.7% for hand rolled tobacco, with an overall prevalence of illicitly traded products of 6.5 per cent. Industry commissioned reports put the overall figure at just below 10 per cent.
Hand rolled tobacco was twice as likely to have been illicitly traded as manufactured cigarettes.
The availability of illicit tobacco was four times as high in countries bordering Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, and Belarus than it was elsewhere.
Almost four out of 10 tobacco products (37.8 per cent) purchased in Latvia came from an illicit source; in Sweden the comparable figure was almost one in five (19%), with Bulgaria coming third in the league table at 18 per cent.
At the other end of the scale, the prevalence of illicitly traded tobacco was one per cent or less in Greece, Austria and Portugal.
Frequency of illicit trading was also higher in countries where a 20 stick pack of Marlboro cost less than the average, rather than more.
Obtaining reliable figures on tobacco smuggling is difficult, precisely because this kind of activity does not tend to be recorded, say the authors, who acknowledge that their methods are not full proof either.
But to date, analysts have relied heavily on reports commissioned by tobacco manufacturers, which are unlikely to be neutral, they argue.
“The tobacco industry has claimed that high cigarette taxes drive smuggling, and has argued that with governments, sometimes successfully, that they should not increase tobacco tax because this will increase the level of trade.”” they write.
But they conclude: “This study suggests that the supply of illicit tobacco, rather than its price, is a key factor contributing to it.”
University of Bath, Bath, BA2 7AY, UK