Intended for healthcare professionals


Why combating tobacco smuggling is a priority

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 09 October 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1933
  1. Robert West, professor of health psychology1,
  2. Joy Townsend, emeritus professor of economics and primary care 2,
  3. Luk Joossens, senior policy adviser3,
  4. Deborah Arnott, director4,
  5. Sarah Lewis, professor medical statistics 5
  1. 1Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London
  2. 2Public and Environmental Health Research Unit, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London
  3. 3Framework Convention Alliance, Brussels, Belgium
  4. 4Action on Smoking and Health, London
  5. 5Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Nottingham, Nottingham
  1. Correspondence to R West robert.west{at}
  • Accepted 15 August 2008

Robert West and colleagues argue that reducing the amount of tobacco smuggled into the UK might prevent substantial numbers of premature deaths

Smuggled tobacco accounts for a sizeable proportion of consumption in the United Kingdom.1 Despite this, the UK dropped public targets for reducing tobacco smuggling in March this year. Responsibility for border controls is being passed from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to the new Border Agency, which has been asked to publish a strategy for tackling smuggling before this year’s prebudget report. We present figures highlighting the serious effects of tobacco smuggling and suggest that the strategy should increase the effort and resources dedicated to reducing it.

Smoking trends

Prevalence of cigarette smoking in the UK is falling by about 0.4% a year but more needs to be done to speed the rate of decline.2 Smoking remains the single largest preventable cause of premature death in the UK. Latest estimates put the prevalence of cigarette smoking at 22%.3 However, the true figure may be higher as the 2% decline from the previous year was paralleled by a 2% decline in “ever smoking,” which is not plausible. The 2006 Health Survey for England recorded a prevalence of 23%,4 but this could also be an underestimate because some smokers do not disclose that they smoke.5

The current fall in smoking prevalence coincided with the Labour government introducing a comprehensive tobacco control strategy in 1999. Actions included raising the price of tobacco through taxation; banning tobacco advertising; frequent publicity campaigns to promote cessation; and making treatments for nicotine dependence more widely available.6 The implementation of indoor smoking bans in public places across the UK in 2006 and 2007 is expected to reduce prevalence further, although the experience of Ireland suggests that initial falls after the bans may …

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