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€120m boom for cigarette smugglers

provo cigarette smugglers will reap a financial boom this year despite being hit for more than €10m by Spanish authorities over the New Year.

The Government plans to introduce 'plain packaging' carrying only graphic health warnings rather than the current brand designs will provide the smugglers with a massive boost in profits, customs and garda sources say.

They estimate that Border-based Provo smugglers are importing around €90m worth of tobacco products a year, mainly from the Far East. Based on the experience of Australia, the first and only country to bring in the plain packaging, they estimate the IRA-controlled trade here could boom to around €120m in value.

The 'Bandit Country' smugglers in south Armagh lost an estimated €10.5m in a series of raids by Spanish police over the New Year. However, Garda sources said this will not deter smugglers from a trade that carries massive profits, with little or no punishment if they are caught.

Sources say the Border-based gang, which consists of between 250 and 300 members whose leaders are all former active members of the Provisional IRA, have moved into the illicit tobacco trade because "there is little or no downside" in terms of fines or imprisonment.

One source said: "If you are caught bringing in €10,000 of heroin or coke, you could face 10 years in jail. But bring in a million fags, and you'll get a slap on the wrist. Cigarettes are the new cocaine."

Officers say plain packaging will make the smugglers' jobs a whole lot easier as in future they won't have to repack several brands at their hidden factories along the border.

One said: "Once plain packs come in, the smugglers won't have to go the trouble of repackaging dozens of different brands as all cigarettes will legally come in drab brown boxes with just a small space left for the brand name. All the smugglers will have to do is simply reprint the brand name."

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