NORTH East health campaigner Fresh has accused multinational tobacco companies of lobbying in the region.
The organisation claimed manufacturers have put out misleading information on the size of the illegal tobacco market, which official statistics show has halved in the last decade, as part of a campaign against plain packaging.
Fresh director Ailsa Rutter said: “They are hyping fear of illegal tobacco and putting out dubious statistics while fighting the idea of standardised packs, which is the measure they fear will hit its profits most.
“Claims that standardised packaging will suddenly make smokers run to the nearest tobacco smuggler are ridiculous.”
Latest official statistics from Revenue and Customs (HMRC) show that less than one in 10 cigarettes was illegal in 2011, compared to more than one in five in 2000, and that the region’s illegal tobacco trade is shrinking.
The North of England Tackling Illegal Tobacco for Better Health Programme, set up to bring together the work of the NHS, HMRC, councils and police, has helped result in the amount of illegal tobacco bought falling by 39 per cent from 2009 to 2011. That equates to a £36million cut in excise duty and VAT evasion.
In response to an Echo article last month, Imperial Tobacco said that in 2012, 16.5 per cent of cigarettes smoked in the North East were illegal.
Colin Wragg, the firm’s head of UK Corporate & Legal Affairs, said: “The illicit trade is common across a wide variety of industry sectors and products, and it is estimated that approximately 600billion illegal cigarettes are sold worldwide each year – 11 per cent of the global market.
“This trade benefits only the criminals involved and creates uncontrolled markets where children can more easily obtain tobacco products.
“The Government is deprived of about £3billion per year in lost tax revenues and the livelihoods of tobacco retailers are threatened.”
A new report from Cancer Research UK by Luk Joossens, advisor to the World Health Organisation, found there is no evidence that replacing glossy designs on cigarette packs with a plain, standardised look will increase the illicit tobacco trade.
Ms Rutter said: “The legitimacy of the tobacco companies themselves is questionable because they have all come under scrutiny in relation to smuggling.
“They inflate the problem to try and distract from the issues around tobacco itself. Putting all tobacco products in standardised packs will reduce their allure to children and help lead to fewer young people wanting to try cigarettes.”