Tobacco gangs 'making £29m a year'
Organised criminals in Northern Ireland are making £29 million a year profit from black market tobacco, it has been claimed.
Around 350 million cigarettes are sold annually without paying duty, almost half illegally, the company behind Gallaher's Tobacco in Ballymena said.
In many cases no arrests are possible because no-one is apprehended with the containers of cigarettes, Japan Tobacco International told a House of Commons hearing.
The material comes from as far afield as the Philippines.
Paul Williams, head of corporate affairs at Japan Tobacco International, said: "If you look at the average price that would be sold at on the streets, that is the equivalent of a £29 million profit in 12 months. I think you would agree that the figures are quite staggering."
He said the criminals were opportunists, taking advantage of the recent increase in the cost of cigarettes as well as the wider economic woe to offer black market product.
"It challenges people's moral compass as to whether they decide to buy an illicit make as opposed to buying a legitimate make," Mr Williams said.
He added it was of huge concern to his business.
Mr Williams said smokers in Northern Ireland consume around two billion cigarettes a year and 17%, or 350 million, of them are non-duty paid, meaning a revenue loss of £85 million. Around 170 million are counterfeit or illicit. Of the remaining 50%, 10% are bought duty free and 40% are cross-border purchases in the Irish Republic. The proportion of non-duty paid cigarettes is higher in Northern Ireland than in the UK.
Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon said shadowy traders were damaging lives.