People who make regular trips abroad to stock up with large quantities of tobacco and/or alcohol can face problems even if the goods brought back each trip are within the 'recommended limits' for personal use.
Large quantities of cigarettes and tobacco can be brought back to the UK from another EU country, provided duty and tax have been paid on them in that country and they are for personal consumption only. In this context, personal consumption includes gifts to family and friends. Indeed, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have issued guidelines that state that 3,200 cigarettes (160 packets) will be accepted as being for personal use in normal circumstances. With duty and tax paid prices for some ‘name brand’ cigarettes being more than £4 per packet cheaper in some EU countries than they are in the UK, substantial savings can be made.
However, it should be remembered that the guidelines are not absolute. Where HMRC officers believe that the goods have been imported for commercial purposes, they may seize them and, if applicable, the vehicle in which they are being carried, even if the quantities involved do not exceed the ‘allowable limits’.
Recently, HMRC were successful in defending the seizure of a quantity of tobacco and alcohol where the person involved had made a number of previous trips importing amounts of both which were large, but within the guidelines. In this case, the vehicle used was seized also. In the view of the court, the limits on importation imposed are not an absolute determinant of whether the goods are imported for commercial or private purposes but are merely guidelines. To determine the status of any particular importation of dutiable goods, all relevant facts need to be considered.
Although most of the illegal importation of tobacco and alcohol is carried out on a large scale by organised criminals, HMRC are also keen to stamp out repeated importations of quantities of dutiable goods which appear to have a commercial purpose.