A CRIMINAL gang is distributing leaflets door-to-door in justice minister Dermot Ahern's constituency offering smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes for half their retail price.

The gang has leafleted housing estates all over the Co Louth area, as well as Jobstown, Neilstown and Clondalkin in Dublin, offering various brands of tobacco priced at €40 for containers of 200 cigarettes. Printed on the leaflets is the mobile number of a man named Mick.

Benny Gilsenan, of Retailers Against Smuggling, said that 30% of the cigarettes on the Irish market are counterfeit or smuggled and that criminals are selling them blatantly. A copy of the leaflet is to be handed over to Store Street garda station in Dublin city this week.

"Smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes need to be tackled in the same way as the 'war against drugs' has been waged. The sale of smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes is now a major criminal operation. Gang leaders are directing these operations," said Gilsenan.

"There needs to be a specialist garda unit set up to tackle this. A lot of serious criminals are making huge amounts of money in counterfeit cigarettes. Our gripe is with the level of surveillance at the airports and ports where these cigarettes are being smuggled in. The gardaí and customs are doing an excellent job but the resources and manpower just aren't there."

Smuggled cigarettes are on sale openly in casual markets all over Ireland and it is estimated that each carton of 200 sold on the black market represented a loss of about €65 to the exchequer.

Counterfeit cigarettes sold in Ireland are produced in China. Many of the tax stamps look genuine but have none of the security features which made them recognisable as counterfeit to customs officers and those with specialist training.