CUSTOMS seized less than one in every 25 cigarettes smuggled into the country last year, as law enforcement agencies struggle to keep up with more sophisticated methods being employed by smugglers, new figures obtained by the Sunday Independent reveal.
Retail groups and opposition politicians this weekend said not enough is being done to clamp down on criminal gangs, including dissident republican groups who are responsible for smuggling up to one billion illegal cigarettes into Ireland every year.
Figures released by the Department of Finance last week show just 40.8 million cigarettes were confiscated by the State last year. This is less than half the total seized in 2012 and a massive 80 per cent decline on the 2010 figure, when gardai and customs officers seized 178.4 million cigarettes.
Retailers Against Smuggling (RAS), which represents tobacco-sellers in Ireland, said smugglers were continually developing new ways to transport their wares into the country.
"They have become very sophisticated and are able to smuggle a huge amount of cigarettes in undetected," a spokesperson for the group told the Sunday Independent.
"Traditionally they would have come from all over the world, but what we are seeing is now is mostly coming from Eastern Europe and this makes it easier to get them to Ireland."
Retailer groups said plans by the Government to introduce plain-packaging laws on all cigarettes on sale here will not reduce the number of people smoking, but instead enable smugglers to move illegal cigarettes more easily without detection.
In Australia, such measures have already been introduced. Heath Michael, the policy director of the Australian Retail Association who opposes the new law, claimed it is a waste of retailers' time and government resources.
"Since plain packaging was introduced in December 2012, legal cigarette sales have remained stable while illegal sales have increased, indicating that people are smoking more and paying less.
"This increase in illicit tobacco trade is impacting on responsible, honest retailers who sell tobacco legally and prevent young people buying cigarettes, as well as the Australian Government losing significant tax revenue," Mr Michael said during a visit to Dublin this week.
Sinn Fein justice spokesperson Padraig MacLochlainn said the Government's combined efforts to clamp down on cigarette smuggling and to discourage young people from taking up smoking was pointless if gardai and customs were not properly resourced.
"There is no point just increasing tax on cigarettes and bringing in plain packaging if you don't equally and vigorously pursue the criminal gangs who facilitate illegal cigarettes," he said.
"If you are buying illegal cigarettes, you are funding criminality, and it's extremely selfish because you are damaging your own health and not paying taxes which would be put towards your own healthcare when you end up in hospital."
According to accountants Grant Thornton, cigarette smuggling costs the Irish economy nearly €700m every year, with massive profits going to criminal gangs and dissident republicans.
It is widely known that the biggest players in the cigarette black market are dissident republican terrorist groups, including those involved in the letter-bomb campaign against British Army recruitment offices in the UK last week.
A spokesperson for Revenue told the Sunday Independent a number of measures were used to target illegal smuggling.
These include examining shipping and passenger traffic on the basis of intelligence and risk profiling, as well as the use of scanning equipment and sniffer dogs in ports and airports.
"We work very closely with our EU partners to tackle source countries and apply the maximum pressure on the governments concerned," Revenue said in a statement issued to the Sunday Independent.
On the issue of plain packaging, the agency said it was "satisfied" the introduction of the measure would not damage efforts to tackle the problem.
The container was tracked all the way to County Louth where police swooped before the Modeng brand cigarettes, smuggled from Malaysia, could disappear.
The cigarettes had a reported street value of €4.3m, but only cost 20 cent a pack to buy.
NUMBER OF CIGARETTES SEIZED
2010 178.4 million
2011 109.1 million
2012 95.6 million
2013 40.8 million
Official figures from the Department of Finance