New survey reveals public concern across EU over impact of illicit trade

Philip Morris International

By Philip Morris International

28 Nov 2022

Two thirds of adults surveyed believe their country has a problem with illicit tobacco and nicotine-containing products, according to an independent study.

More than 13,000 adults from 13 EU member states too part in the survey, conducted by Povaddo Research and commissioned by PMI (Philip Morris International). Around 1,000 online interviews were conducted in each country, with the participants split more-or-less equally between smokers as well as users of nicotine-containing products and non-users. The results were recently revealed at an event at Brussels' Stanhope Hotel. 

Illicit cigarettes

One of the most concerning developments has been the boom in the consumption of illicit cigarettes, in particular counterfeit cigarettes which present additional dangers to public health bringing with them higher levels of tar, carbon monoxide and other uncontrolled toxic substances. In a study commissioned by PMI in 2021 and carried out by KPMG, it was estimated that illicit consumption has increased by around 1.3 billion cigarettes in 2021, with 8.1% of total consumption in the EU estimated to stem from an illicit source. These figures were driven largely by France which saw an estimated 33% increase in counterfeit consumption, which is probably attributable to the massive hike in the price of cigarettes by over 40% since 2017.

69% of the public surveyed take a positive view on helping adult smokers to switch to tobacco alternatives, such as smoke-free products

“If you don't adapt to reality, you will completely destroy the legal markets of tobacco and nicotine products on this continent,” said PMI Senior Vice President for External Affairs, Gregoire Verdeaux. “In Italy, Bulgaria or Romania illicit trade has been cut in half in the space of three, four years. On the other hand, you have the country I know best, France, where more than a third of the market in tobacco is on the black market. And so what is the difference here? It is cost and that the framework is not open to alternatives to cigarettes.”

The problem of illicit cigarettes isn’t just one of public health, increasingly the public are aware that this trade is linked to organized crime and presents a security and safety challenge on our streets. The survey found that 65% believe their country has a problem with illegal trade and that the growing illegal market is dissuading smokers from quitting or switching to alternatives that are often subject to tight regulatory barriers and sometimes taxed as if they were cigarettes. In Bulgaria (73%), France (74%), Greece (75%) and in Romania (75%) there is particular concern over the extent of illicit trade.

PMI Event
L to R: Jack Parrock (Moderator), Mario Moniz Barreto, EU Communications Director PMI, Gregoire Verdeaux, Senior Vice President External Affairs PMI, William Stewart, President Povaddo

Citizens understand the dangers of smoking to health and to the increase of illicit trade, but only 14% are aware that the illicit trade is estimated to cost around €10 billion per year to EU member states in lost tax revenue. The French situation shows that there is a balance between increasing tax and driving users to use illegal sources, one that it would be foolish to ignore.

Lower income households

Most households are living under straitened circumstances with rising inflation. In particular, many are struggling to manage soaring energy costs and the rising cost of food. William Stewart, the President of Povaddo Research said that among smokers surveyed 76% feel that it would be unfair to further increase taxes, because they feel they're already paying an outsized amount on tax: “Let's just be mindful and think of the demographics of smokers, they tend to skew downward from a socio economic standpoint, smokers are going to be less likely, for example, to have a university education as compared to non-smokers. So when we think about what the smoker constituency looks like, in most markets it’s between 20 and 40% of the population, the rising cost is particularly punitive.”

Verdeaux added that over 50% of unemployed people in France smoke every day: “A pack of cigarettes costs about €10, but around 83% of the cost goes to the state.”

When asked about best practice within the EU Verdeaux pointed to the addiction strategy of the Czech Republic as one of the leaders. Though outside the EU, he also mentioned the UK’s success in reducing smoking, this is in no small part due to the very positive approach of Public Health England which has embraced less harmful alternatives even supporting them through the National Health Service.

Interestingly, 69% of the public surveyed take a positive view on helping adult smokers to switch to tobacco alternatives, such as smoke-free products. The public appears to support taxing these products at a lower rate than cigarettes, but at a high enough rate to deter young people from taking up the new products. In general, the public seem to be sympathetic to understanding the cost that smokers face and the need to provide positive encouragement towards alternatives if they are unable to stop smoking altogether.

Mário Moniz Barreto, Director Communication EU PMI, who is responsible for supporting affiliates in making clear to society PMI’s vision for a smoke-free future, confessed to be a harm reduction enthusiast, with many years’ experience in harm and risk reduction projects and campaigns, from road safety campaigns, to responsible drinking. Moniz Barreto says: “We need to have a different conversation, that is what most Europeans want, they also want a different approach and policies based on empathy. We need to show concern about the 85 million smokers in Europe and take a science-based approach.”

This article was commissioned by Philip Morris International and written by Dods 

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