CLEARLY, the government is worried by the extent of cross-Channel drinks and tobacco smuggling - as its new tougher penalties suggest.

Offenders risk confiscation of their cars and publicans and off-licence owners caught selling contraband could lose their licences.

But are these extra measures really enough to stem the tide of bootleg booze?


The truth is that Customs officials are swamped by its extent.

Some 1.5million pints of beer a day are coming into the country, half of them smuggled.

And they are handicapped because so much of this illicit trade - costing Britain £1billion a year in lost revenue - goes on under the cloak of legality.

The organised gangs bringing in huge amounts find it easy to hide among the hordes of people legitimately stocking up in France with boot-loads of cheap drinks and cigarettes for their own use. At the start, when the EU single market began, we forecast this bootlegging boom.

Tinkering with the penalties will not stop it.

Indeed, these tougher punishments may simply drive the already widespread smuggling operations further underground and deeper into the clutches of organised crime.

There is already evidence that much of it is linked to drugs gangs.

The government has plenty of proof of the harm done to the economy by the smugglers - not just through revenue lost to the Exchequer, but also through closure of businesses and job losses in Britain's drinks trade.

Yet, even as it gets tough, it is only addressing the symptoms, not the disease.

The root of the problem is in the huge difference in duty between here and the continental countries.

If the Chancellor had the sense to reduce it to the level of that in France - and he could easily find other items and services to tax to make up for the drop in revenue from drink - the smugglers' incentive would disappear at a stroke.

It is the only answer.

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