HEALTH authorities should be more active in the fight against contraband tobacco products, according to two Limerick TDs who attended a meeting of local retailers at the Strand Hotel this week.
Retailers Against Smuggling (RAS), which is backed by retail groups and the tobacco industry, estimate that one in four cigarettes sold in Ireland is illegal and the rampant black market has cost 700 jobs in the retail sector.
There was growing evidence that drug gangs in Limerick and elsewhere were moving into the trade and James Ryan, who owns two Centra shops in the city, said the average fine of €1,800 for illegal selling imposed by the courts was “pocket money” for such criminal organisations.
Children were being used by criminals to sell tobacco door-to-door on city estates, exposing minors to the twin ills of tobacco and criminality.
“If I sell to a minor I can get a fine of up to €1900 and can be suspended from selling for three months,” Mr Ryan said, adding that those involved in the criminal trade were getting lighter penalties on average.
Retailer Colin Williams said RAS had tried to involve the Department of Health in their campaign “but they are not interested in the moment”. But there were compelling public health reasons to get involved from the point of view of selling to children and the harmful contents of counterfeit cigarettes originating in Asia.
“However bad cigarettes are for you, what is coming in from China and Vietnam far worse,” said Mr Williams.
Customs officer Seamus Lynch said while Revenue was not involved in the health side of the argument, “there’s no doubt about it that everything from arsenic to rat droppings have been found” in counterfeit cigarettes.
In response, Minister of State Jan O’Sullivan said it was “disappointing that (the Department of] Health has not shown more interest”.
“It is a health issue, particularly if it involves selling to minors,” she said. And Minister O’Sullivan said minimum and on-the-spot fines, as proposed by RAS, ought to be explored and she would be “quite happy to raise the matter with Minister Alan Shatter”.
Fianna Fail’s Deputy Niall Collins inquired whether RAS had conducted any analysis on whether reducing the price of cigarettes would make the trade less lucrative for criminals and ease problems in the retail sector.
RAS spokesman Benny Gilsenan said that the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society were “gunning for us, as they proclaim we are trying to bring the price down – but I have never once sought a price reduction”.
Deputy Collins said that such charities had their own “agendas” but it might be of use for RAS to “impress upon the government that smuggled cigarettes are even more detrimental to your health”.
“Pushing the health side of it might seem a bit rich coming from the tobacco industry but there does seem to be a health argument there,” said Deputy Collins.
Retailers identified door-to-door selling on Limerick housing estates and in pubs; and the markets in Limerick city and Kilmallock as a major part of the problem.
Mr Ryan showed the meeting a notice left up in an unwitting Castletroy store where 200 cigarettes were being offered for €35 when they would cost €90 over the counter.
Customs official Alma Egan said Revenue did follow up on such notices and one such investigation had resulted in a man being jailed for nine months.
From an analysis of local figures, the average fine imposed by courts in Limerick for black market tobacco offences was €3,068, higher than the national average, Ms Egan said.