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EU citizens underestimate cost of illicit tobacco despite recognising safety and health risks, says survey

Counterfeit cigarettes seized in Antwerp
19:03 05/12/2022

Only 14% of EU citizens are aware that the illicit tobacco market costs member states over €10 billion a year in lost revenue, according to a new independent survey.

But the majority of respondents (77%) understand that the illegal trade in contraband and counterfeit tobacco has serious negative consequences on security, safety and public health in their home country. More than six in 10 (65%) of the 13,630 adults questioned, identify illicit tobacco as an EU-wide problem.

Conducted across 13 EU countries between 10 and 15 November, the Povaddo survey commissioned by Philip Morris International, assessed Europeans’ “awareness and perceptions” of policies that could help adult smokers quit or switch to alternatives.

Belgium’s role in illicit tobacco trade

The illicit tobacco market is a pertinent topic for Belgium, one of the countries polled, because of the high incidence of contraband and counterfeit within its borders.

A growing number of Illegal cigarette factories in Belgium are producing more counterfeit cigarettes, according to KPMG’s figures for 2021. The criminal activity fuels the clandestine market in France, which accounts for around 50% of the illicit trade in the EU, said William Stewart, president and founder of Povaddo.

Presenting the survey in Brussels, Stewart said around three-quarters of respondents thought illicit trade undermined efforts to reduce smoking rates. Crucially, two-thirds (67%) agreed that illicit trade made it less likely that adult smokers would fully switch to better alternative tobacco products. Almost seven in 10 (69%) believed that the illegal market undermined health authorities’ attempts to significantly reduce smoking rates.

Science and innovation can help reduce smoking rates

Stewart said it was important to be “mindful” that many smokers were from lower socio-economic backgrounds and less likely to have a university education. “Some 51% of smokers feel discriminated against and 76% feel it’s unfair to further increase tax.”

Respondents showed signs of solidarity for the predicament of adult smokers. As well as encouraging a complete cessation of smoking, six in 10 (61%) said the EU should prioritise policies and strategies that sought to improve the lives of those who smoked cigarettes, drank irresponsibly or took drugs.

Almost seven in 10 (69%) believed that innovation and technical and scientific breakthroughs could play a role in reducing smoking rates. Around 66% agreed that regulating the taxation of consumer products based on scientific evidence could encourage citizens to make better lifestyle choices.

In conclusion, Stewart said 68% of respondents agreed they would support their country’s government advocating for the EU to fully review all available evidence on alternatives, including e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, before deciding how to tax them.

“Interested adult smokers can be encouraged to switch to scientifically-substantiated less risky alternatives by taxing these products lower than cigarettes but still high enough to discourage use by youth or non-smokers,” he added.

Majority believe their country is heading in wrong direction

The survey also assessed respondents views on the direction their country was taking. Some 64% thought it was heading in the wrong direction, said Stewart, underlining the wide range of opinions. “The high water mark in Poland and Slovakia was up to 79%, while the low water mark was 41% in Lithuania, followed by Portugal (47%).”

Citizens expressed greater negativity about the direction of their home nations compared to the European Union. When asked about the EU as a whole, 51% of respondents felt it was heading in the wrong direction. High water mark countries were Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece and Slovakia, while Lithuania and Portugal again reported lower figures.

Only one in three respondents said the EU was focusing on the most pressing issues of the day, almost around half thought it was not focused on the most pressing issues because it was distracted by other issues, he said.

“The implication is that people are a bit nervous in this current environment; there’s a lot going on with economy concerns, inflation, recession, energy prices and the situation in Ukraine,” explained Stewart. “If you humanise this, when we’re not full of hope and prosperity, we become more hesitant to change.”

The survey was conducted online by Povaddo in Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain. Respondents were almost equally split between smokers, users of nicotine-containing products and non-users.

Photo: Illegal cigarettes seized by Antwerp customs © Belga/Tijs Vanderstappen

Written by The Bulletin