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Internet cigarettes

UK-based smokers know that it is possible to make substantial savings by buying tobacco abroad. With the price of cigarettes in the UK as much as double the cost in some other countries, and with travel easier and cheaper than ever, consumers are now making regular trips and regular savings.

Exploiting the price difference, some Internet companies have been offering the consumer all the cost benefits of cross-Channel shopping without leaving the comfort of your home. All you have to do is log on, choose your brand, forward your credit card details, and wait for the goods to arrive (or so they say). .

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. Inevitably there are problems, the most serious being the disagreement between online cigarette suppliers and HM Customs who maintain that buying cigarettes over the Internet is illegal. Today, Customs are clamping down harder than ever, having been equipped with millions of pounds of new technology by a government keen to claw back the billions of pounds that it loses each year as a direct result of smuggling.

The law

Customs and the Internet cigarette suppliers are especially at odds over Article 8 of Council Directive 92/12/EEC (February 25, 1992) that states that: 'As regards products acquired by private individuals for their own use and transported by them, the principle governing the internal market lays down that excise duty shall be charged in the member state in which they are acquired.'

The Internet suppliers interpret the law as meaning that if the individual has paid for the delivery of products by post then they have transported the products themselves and that accordingly they should pay duty in the member state in which the goods were acquired. 

Customs takes a rather different view, as spelled out by their National Tobacco spokesman Robert Buxton: 'It is quite clear that, for goods like tobacco and alcohol, the local taxes, excise taxes, must be paid in the country where they're consumed.' According to Customs' reading of Article 8, 'transported by them' means that the individual must physically travel with their goods if they wish to make the savings.

Legal opinion obtained in 2001 by Forest (on behalf of a Labour councillor whose Internet purchases had been confiscated by Customs) concluded that, "It is currently illegal to import cigarettes into this country through the post without paying the relevant duty", with "relevant duty" in this case meaning "UK duty". This means you should pay exactly the same for your imported cigarettes as you would had you purchased them in the UK. The report was unequivocal in stating that, "In order to qualify from relief of duty in respect of goods imported from an EU member state ... the excise goods must be personally imported by a traveller on a cross-Channel trip."

The reality

Despite the best efforts of Customs, many purchases are inevitably getting through to the buyer. Customs say they simply don't have the resources to check every package posted abroad, but they would seize all Internet cigarettes if they could. We suspect (we don't know) that some Internet companies are getting so many packages through Customs' net and making such healthy profits that they can afford to re-send seized goods and so keep their customer base happy.

The ultimate aim of these companies is to provide individual consumers with every cigarette they smoke. Repeat orders are the key to their success, and they envisage a time when they can send an individual a regular package (without the need for repeat ordering) every few weeks, meaning regular savings for the consumer and regular income for the company. 

For the moment consumer confidence has been hit by media stories that have questioned the effectiveness and the validity of Internet tobacco suppliers. The Daily Telegraph is just one paper that has put the service to the test by ordering goods and found it wanting. While many purchases do get through, it is quite hit and miss and when orders do go astray there is rarely an explanation from the supplier who might be impossible to track down.

Apart from the illegality of what you are doing (Customs could decide to prosecute), the danger for the consumer is the fact that you are dealing with companies who may be under legal investigation and are beyond regulation. If your goods don't arrive you have very little chance of getting back either your goods or your money, which is no doubt why the Office of Fair Trading has warned against buying this way.

Of course 'entrepreneurs' will always try to find a loophole in the law. A couple of years ago, for example, Forest was contacted by an Internet company that was offering - get this - 200 cigarettes free of charge if you purchased from them a bottom of the range cigarette lighter: price £25. A rather obvious scam, perhaps, but typical of their ingenuity.

Our advice? Buyer beware. Buying tobacco via the Internet is illegal. For this reason we can't condone it and if you do buy tobacco this way you do so at your own risk.

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"Tobacco is not an illegal substance yet the government is persecuting a minority. I think that's a disgrace in a social democracy."

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Playwright and screenwriter

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