“It is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18.”
Illegal tobacco is a problem that enables local children to smoke, brings crime into communities and undermines local shops. As a retailer, if you’re angry about it, you are right to be annoyed – and you can help.
While most shops do not sell illegal tobacco, and would not dream of selling to children, figures do show shops have become a source for illegal tobacco sales, with a small minority of traders prepared to break the law.
Tobacco companies have claimed the illegal tobacco market is out of control. However, although it is still a problem in some areas, the illegal tobacco market as a proportion of the overall tobacco market has almost halved since 2000. In 2021/22, HMRC figures show illegal tobacco made up 9% of all cigarettes and 35% of hand rolled tobacco, compared to illegal tobacco making up 21% of all cigarettes in 2001 and 60% of hand rolled tobacco in 2005-06.
What is illegal tobacco?
- Illicit whites – brands which have no legal market in the UK, often from Eastern Europe
- Non-UK duty paid – genuine UK brands brought into the country and sold without duty being paid
- Counterfeit – illegally manufactured and made to look like recognised brands
How illegal tobacco harms communities.
Nationally the illegal tobacco market has halved over the past decade, but it is still a problem in some areas. While all tobacco kills, illicit is a problem because:
- It bypasses the “Over 18” law which most honest retailers abide by, making it easier for children to get hold of cigarettes. Children are often aware who is selling it locally and at pocket money prices.
- The illegal tobacco trade is linked to criminals and brings crime into local areas. People supplying it locally are often involved in drugs or loan sharking.
- Cheap tobacco encourages smokers to keep smoking and to smoke more, and can break down their willpower to quit.
- It robs local hospitals and schools of money for vital services.
Look out for:
- Branded, non-standardised packaging
- Unfamiliar brand names
- Foreign health warnings and no picture warnings
- Flaws in packaging
- Tobacco being offered by unexpected sales people – most likely linked to criminals
- Cheaper prices – usually around half the price of legal tobacco
What is the law?
- Cigarette packs and hand-rolling tobacco packs must be supplied in line with Standard Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015 and Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016.
- The sale of illicit tobacco contravenes the Tobacco Products Duties Act 1979.
- Counterfeit tobacco products also contravene the Trade Marks Act 1994.
- Illicit tobacco products may also contravene labelling requirements.
- It is an offence to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18. It is also an offence for an adult to buy tobacco on behalf of someone under 18.
- The sale of loose cigarettes is illegal. The minimum pack size contains 20 cigarettes.
- All retailers of tobacco products are required to display a statutory notice visible at the point of sale.
- People travelling to the UK can bring in a limited amount of tobacco products from other countries only for their own personal use. Possession is legal; re-sale is illegal.
- Tobacco purchased over the internet must have the UK duty accounted for before the products are sent to the UK.
- There is a distinction between possession of a non-compliant product for supply (an offence under Trade Marks Act and Tobacco and Related Products Regulations which is treated the same as selling) and possession for personal use which is not an offence.
- For more information visit businesscompanion.info and search for ‘tobacco.’
Tracking and tracing
Tobacco products are subject to traceability regulations and tobacco packaging must have certain security features. All tobacco retailers must have an economic operator ID to sell tobacco – see www.gov.uk/guidance/selling-and-storing-tobacco-products.
What are the penalties for selling illegal tobacco?
As well as potentially losing their alcohol licence or lottery terminal, shops can face:
- A hefty fine or up to two years imprisonment for breaching Standard Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015 or Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016.
- Up to £5,000 fine for sale of tobacco without a fiscal mark.
- Up to £1,000 for sale of loose cigarettes (eg singles)
- Up to £1,000 for failure to display the correct statutory notice
- Up to £2,500 fine for selling tobacco to under 18s: Repeat offenders risk a restricted premises order, a restricted sales order or both. Breaching these can mean a fine of up to £20,000.
- The maximum penalty for trade marks offences is 10 years imprisonment
Shops suspected of selling illegal tobacco can be subject to raids by HMRC or trading standards with sniffer dogs and if caught, shamed in the local newspaper
How can I keep my business safe?
By actively supporting the Keep It Out campaign you will help to protect your own business and the business of fellow legitimate retailers. There are a number of ways you can do this:
- talk to your colleagues about the laws relating to tobacco
- talk about the issue with your customers so that they are aware of the issues relating to illegal tobacco and to show you are taking a stand against the illegal tobacco trade
- report any intelligence you have about where illegal tobacco is being sold by calling 0300 999 0000, visiting the reporting page on this site or by contacting your local Trading Standards department.