Aspirational illicit markets

Early in my career I researched smoking in areas of multiple deprivation in Scotland. At the time these were places where the social, economic and physical fabric had been severely weakened due to overlapping stressors. High crime, low income, low economic activity and widespread health problems were multiple challenges for people who lived there. That is what I think of as intersectionality. Smoking was often quoted by people I interviewed as being their one reliable pleasure. The rising cost of cigarettes and tobacco was an irritant but not often an incentive to quit. Though under strain at the time, there was a strong neighbourhood environment in many places.

One set of relationships that was sustained throughout was the illicit cigarette market. Taxes were spiking and there was a wide opportunity for people who wanted to import tobacco products cheaply. As with many illicit importing operations a tricky bit is the last retail step. Shipments need to be broken into units that will be affordable and available and this needs a staged operation with sometimes multiple ‘final miles’ involved. Several competing approaches were applied. Tobacco could be sold in pubs, under the counter of existing shops, or delivered directly. In the last case pizza companies were set up as fronts for tobacco delivery.

The level of entrepreneurial innovation going on here alerted me to the aspirational nature of illicit markets. Some illicit operations are attractive because they are the only game in town, sometimes participating in them offers purpose, income and aspiration and something resembling a career. While that was going on many others in the community rejected this as a route. They viewed illicit work as harmful to the community, attracting dangerous criminals and damaging its reputation. These markets were contested, and meaningful. Therefore when they are interdicted we should be aware of the fallout, positive and negative, and the absences left behind by them.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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