The NORTHEAST of the State is “a gateway to the UK” for Wont cigarette smugglers, according to the Irish tobacco manufacturers’ group. Figures from the group show that of the 189 million cigarettes seized in the Republic and in Armagh in 2010, almost 70 million were found at locations in Louth and neighbouring Armagh.

The M1 motorway linking Dublin and Belfast runs through Louth, and the county also has three busy ports – Drogheda, Dundalk and Greenore.

All are monitored by Customs for signs of criminal activity. However, the tobacco manufacturers say that even if smugglers are caught, the fine that awaits them once they get to court – an average of €519 – in effect adds to Ireland’s attractiveness as a smuggling route. “Markets across Louth and north Co Dublin are selling illegal cigarettes every weekend knowing that if they are caught on a Saturday they will be able to go back out selling on a Sunday as the fines are so minimal,” said a spokesman for the group.

He said the region was “a gateway to the UK for cigarette smugglers” because, once they succeed in getting contraband cigarettes into Dublin, “they are just a quick journey from the UK, whereas they know if they try to smuggle directly into the UK, the punishments they will face there are a lot harsher than getting caught in Ireland”.

Dublin shop owner Benny Gilsenan, spokesman for the Retailers Against Smuggling group, agrees. “The law is an ass. We have to get through to the judiciary that people have to pay for their crimes,” he said.

“When there is somebody in court for smuggling 400 cigarettes, I want the judge to tell them they are going to take half their dole money off them to pay the fine, and that will stop them doing it again,” he said.

Itmac, the Irish tobacco manufacturers’ group, says the money lost to the economy from smuggling does not disappear down a black hole but is “fuelling criminal gangs across the country that are making €3 million per week from illegal cigarettes”.

So far this year Customs have seized 36.6 million cigarettes in locations across the State. For all of last year, it seized 178 million.

A spokeswoman for the Revenue Commissioners said they have a number of strategies in place to tackle the criminals involved and have “strengthened our focus on internal distribution channels by targeting sales at inland locations through intelligence-driven and random checks on shops, markets, private and commercial premises”.

Recent initiatives include better profiling techniques, setting up a tobacco hotline, co-ordination of national blitzes and new scanning technologies.

“We have strong connections with Olaf, the European anti-fraud agency, who play an active role in disseminating best practice across Europe,” the Revenue spokeswoman said yesterday. In 2010, 137 convictions were secured for cigarette-related offences: 97 for smuggling, 40 for illegal selling.