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Rise in Duty-Free Cigarette Sales Threatens Smoke-Free Pledge

Increased sales of cheaper cigarettes from abroad threaten to undermine the Government's ambition of a smoke-free England by the end of the decade, according to researchers, who found purchases of tobacco that are either duty free or from countries where cigarettes cost less has tripled since 2019.

The proportion of smokers making cross-border tobacco purchases increased from around 5% in 2019 to a little over 16% in 2022, according to a study published in the journal Tobacco Control.

Raising tobacco taxes has been an important Government strategy for cutting smoking rates, and access to cheaper products could threaten its 2019 pledge for England to be smoke-free by 2030 – defined as reaching 5% average adult smoking prevalence. 

Cheaper Tobacco Equals More Smokers 

"A rise in cross-border tobacco purchasing is a cause for concern given people who use cheap tobacco are less likely to try to quit smoking," according to the researchers from University College London.

The study set out to determine the extent that substantial social and economic changes in England — such as Brexit, social and travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis — had affected tobacco purchasing patterns.

As a result of Brexit, UK passengers travelling to EU countries have been able to take advantage of duty-free shopping, which means they can buy much cheaper tobacco products at airports, ports, and international train stations.

Restrictions on social interaction and international travel during the pandemic may have reduced access to cheaper tobacco in many other countries, the researchers suggested, while more recently, the cost of living crisis has reduced people's disposable income.

Study Statistics

The study drew on data from 11,232 adult respondents to The Smoking Toolkit Study — a nationally representative monthly cross-sectional survey in England — who had smoked in the past year. They analysed changes in tobacco purchasing behaviour between February 2019, a year before the UK formally left the European Union, and October 2022, when the most recent data was available.

The average age of the respondents was 42 and just over 46% were women. Analysis showed that the proportion of respondents saying they'd bought duty-free or cross-border tobacco rose from 5.2% to just over 16.1% during the study period.

The trend was seen in all social grades but the changes were more noticeable in those with professional, managerial or supervisory roles than unskilled, semi-skilled or skilled workers.

The proportion of people who said they had bought tobacco on the black market didn't change significantly, rising from just over 9% to just over 14% between February 2019 and November 2020, before falling back to 8.5% in October 2022. 

Policy Changes

"Policy measures that reduce access to cheaper sources of tobacco could help increase the rate of quit attempts among those who smoke and accelerate progress towards the Government's smoke-free 2030 target," Dr Jackson told Medscape News UK."Measures the Government could consider include reducing duty-free allowances, ideally to zero, and better enforcement of the existing rules around duty-free purchasing," Dr Jackson noted. "In addition, reversal of recent reductions in trading standards budgets would increase capacity to tackle illicit tobacco." In an emailed statement, Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: "The findings of this study that cross border purchases have grown significantly strongly reinforces our recommendation to the Chancellor that 'duty free' should be banned. Access to cheap tobacco encourages smokers to continue to smoke, as the price of tobacco is a major incentive to quit." 

The Department of Health and Social Care had not yet responded to a request for comment by press time.

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK.

Tob Control. Published online 18 July 2023.  Full text

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