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Smugglers now in fake drugs racket

The same international smugglers who are bringing billions of cigarettes into Ireland are also supplying counterfeit Viagra tablets, a conference in Kenya was told yesterday by a senior figure involved in the international strategy to battle the counterfeiters and smugglers who now supply a "staggering" amount of tobacco and other products.

Major drug-dealing gangs in Europe have switched to tobacco smuggling because the profits are just as great and the punishment, if they are caught, is far less severe in all European countries than for drug trafficking.

In Ireland, dissident groups such as the Real IRA have been identified by customs as being the largest smugglers of tobacco, using routes formerly used by the Provisional IRA across Europe.

The Real IRA had been sourcing cigarettes in the Baltic states such as Lithuania and Estonia until about 18 months ago. Now, it is following the lead of other major smugglers and bringing the tobacco products in from China.

It is now possible, the Anti Illicit Trade conference in Mombassa heard, to order container loads of cigarettes from China over the internet, pay by credit card, have a container sent around the world and into a port where officials have been bribed.

Customs officers and tobacco industry investigators say a container filled with nine million cigarettes can be bought from a source in China for as little as $115,000 (€81,000) and this would have a street value of up to €6m and net the Irish smuggler a profit per container of over €2m. The loss to the exchequer per container is around €1m.

Andy McCreddie, head of the UK Revenue and Customs Criminal Intelligence Group, told the conference that up to 30 per cent of cigarettes now bought in the UK are smuggled.

About half are counterfeit brands manufactured in the Far East, and the other half legitimate cheap brands from other countries.

Counterfeiting and smuggling of goods is now possibly the biggest global criminal conspiracy, he said.

Mr McCreddie, commenting on one gang detected by UK customs said: "Exactly the same gang is counterfeiting Viagra and £1 coins." He said the 'Viagra' usually contains chalk or talcum powder.

Mr McCreddie agreed that as Ireland now has the highest cigarette prices in the world, we are undoubtedly experiencing possibly the highest levels of smuggling.

He said intelligence reaching the UK Customs suggesting a "staggering" level of cigarettes being smuggled into the UK and Ireland.

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The bulk of the counterfeit products coming from China and other Far Eastern countries is transiting the free zone ports in the United Arab Emirates where, the industry investigator said, they had detected a gang which had generated $350m (€247m) profit through smuggling cigarettes from China.

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