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Representatives from the tobacco industry are cautioning against Rishi Sunak’s UK smoking phase-out plan, highlighting the potential risk of nearly £3 billion flowing into criminal networks. The industry contends that the existing black market in tobacco products in Britain, which has seen over 27 million illicit cigarettes seized in the past two years, could further expand.

Critics of Sunak’s smoking ban proposal point to the experience in South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 when legal cigarette sales were banned for five months. During that period, cigarette smuggling saw a significant surge, with an estimated 93 percent of smokers resorting to illegal sellers.

Imperial Brands, encompassing well-known tobacco names like John Player Special, Davidoff, and Gauloises, expressed concerns about the potential consequences. Oliver Kutz from Imperial Brands emphasized, “Banning people from being able to buy cigarettes legally won’t stop them smoking but instead lead to a booming illicit market,” referring to the South African scenario.

The tobacco industry’s analysis suggests that the proposed smoking phase-out could redirect billions annually away from the Treasury, benefiting those exploiting the potential rise in illicit trade. Kutz argued, “The Prime Minister’s plan for a smoke-free Britain, while well-intentioned, might inadvertently boost organized crime, reduce tax revenue, and fail to achieve the intended goal of reducing smoking.”

In contrast to the UK’s plan, New Zealand’s recent government decision involves abandoning a policy that would have prevented anyone born post-2008 from legally purchasing cigarettes. Under the UK proposal, selling tobacco products to individuals born on or after January 1 will become an offense. The ongoing debate underscores the complex challenges and potential unintended consequences associated with efforts to eliminate smoking.

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