The risk that stripping cigarette packets of their distinctive branding and logos will fuel a surge in tobacco smuggling and other forms of crime have been ignored by the Department of Health, according to a new independent study.

The report, ’Plain packaging and the illicit trade in the UK’, has been produced by Transcrime, the Joint Research Centre on Transnational Crime based in Milan. The agency specialises in calculating the likely effects and unintended consequences on levels of crime of proposed legislation.

It says it is “remarkable” that ministers and officials have failed to do their homework before launching the consultation on plain packaging for cigarettes, and urges them to carry out a rigorous impact assessment before deciding whether to press ahead with new laws requiring ’plain packs’.

The report says the oversight is even more surprising given that as recently as two years ago, the last Labour government rejected plain packaging citing lack of evidence regarding its effectiveness.

The report finds that plain packaging measures would have three main counterproductive risks:

• Increased risk of counterfeit cigarettes flooding the UK market.

• Increased risk that consumers will no longer care whether they are smoking legal or illegal tobacco.

• Higher levels of smuggling as it becomes even more profitable.

Professor Ernesto Savona, Professor of Criminology and author of the report said:

“Despite acknowledgement of the importance of the trade of illicit tobacco in the UK, the policy documents prepared for the public consultation have not considered the impacts on illicit trade.

“This is remarkable as plain packaging may produce a variety of effects which ultimately undermine its main purpose, to reduce smoking initiation and prevalence.

“Our analysis shows that by making all tobacco packs look almost identical, we’re likely to see a sharp increase in counterfeiting, primarily because counterfeiters will see that consumers are no longer able to distinguish between legitimate products and fake ones.”

“Tobacco is attractive to organised crime; the more you regulate, the more opportunities you create, so the first point is to watch out for the regulations.”

Former Detective Chief Inspector, Will O’Reilly of Scotland Yard, who has studied illicit tobacco distribution networks across the UK and their links to organised crime, said:

“The illicit tobacco trade starts at the very top of the criminal fraternity. The same organised criminal networks who historically have dealt in hard drugs, illegal firearms, people trafficking and terrorism are now funding and organising the illicit trade of tobacco.

“For them this is a rapidly growing source of income with much lower risks and the penalties compared to other illegal activity.

“Dealers of illicit tobacco have no scruples, they do not care who they sell to. I have witnessed traders selling single illicit cigarettes for a few pence, clearly aimed at seducing children to part with their pocket money.”

In conclusion, Transcrime warns that plain packaging may have the opposite effect from that intended – to reduce smoking uptake by the young and diminish its wider prevalence in society.