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Monday, October 12, 1998 Published at 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK


Drug smugglers turn to drink

Smuggling costs the Treasury £1bn a year

Drug traffickers are increasingly smuggling other goods - like tobacco and alcohol, according to customs investigators.

Senior Investigator Ranald MacDonald: "We're cracking down but the illegal trade grows all the time"
Customs and Excise say they have seen a huge rise in the illegal trade over the last year.

They believe the scale of the problem is so great it could undermine legitimate businesses and threaten the UK economy.

Sometimes duty-free goods which should be exported do not even leave the country, and are sold on the black market.

[ image: Smugglers bring in
Smugglers bring in "huge" quantities of goods
Customs investigators say criminals are attracted by the fact that smuggling drink and tobacco is less risky than drugs and the penalties if they are caught are less severe.

The higher duty charged in Britain than in neighbouring countries is also said to encourage opportunist smugglers.

In response Customs have announced a Christmas crackdown on shops, pubs and clubs selling smuggled goods.

Operation Mistletoe will target retailers throughout the UK who cost the Treasury an estimated £1bn a year in lost revenue.

Jane Peel: Drug smugglers have moved into alcohol and tobacco
Officers say the "seasonal slam" will involve "repeated raids" on gangs who smuggle and their outlets.

Diana Barrett, head of anti-smuggling operations, said: "It is unfair to honest retailers and is costing the taxpayer millions.

"Smugglers and fraudsters will find that not only may their goods be seized immediately, but we will be using all options available to prosecute or revoke licences."

The operation comes after the government's Comprehensive Spending Review recommended that Customs should receive an extra £35m funding over three years to tackle smuggling.

Customs say they have been more successful tackling drugs dealers - with the announcement that they broke up or disrupted 131 gangs last year.

[ image: Those who buy contraband goods help the smugglers, say Customs]
Those who buy contraband goods help the smugglers, say Customs
There was a massive increase in seizures of Class A substances such as cocaine and heroin in southern England in the past year.

A total of £35.56m worth of drugs was seized. Of these, 37% were Class A drugs, compared to 9% in the previous year.

Spokesman Bob Gaiger said: "Some smuggling organisations favour different types of drugs and employ different methods.

"We have taken out smugglers on the high seas, and that must send out a message to organisations that they are no longer safe off the coast of Spain," he said.

The new measures included:

  • More than 100 extra Customs officers stationed throughout the country

  • More robust use of criminal prosecution powers

  • Improved tracking of goods

As a result of the financial review, Customs was set a target of an £80m increase in the revenue value of detected alcohol and tobacco fraud over the next three years.

In 1997, Customs seized smuggled goods with a revenue value of £76m.

Crackdown on taxes

Mike Ripley, a spokesman for the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, welcomed the crackdown.

"It is estimated that we have at least 1.5m pints of beer crossing the Channel every day. Customs estimate that 70% of that will be sold on.

"It has got to be stopped and now is the time, October and November is when smugglers start stocking up for Christmas.

"But the real answer to this problem rests with the government which insists on taxes on alcohol which are way out of line with our European neighbours.

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