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Keep It Out – summer appeal to tackle illegal tobacco sellers

People in the North East are being urged to help shut down criminals dealing illegal tobacco this summer as new figures show “tab houses” and shops are the two main sources for children and adults.

It comes as a major survey of nearly 1900 people across Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham shows that 7 in 10 children aged 14-17 who smoke have been offered and have tried illegal tobacco (1)

Trading standards teams are hoping for new information from the public as the Keep It Out campaign re-launches this week (2). Since 2017 the campaign has resulted in over 1,900 tip offs from within the region and over 7,600 nationally, leading to seizures, court action and shops facing closure orders and fines.

Illegal tobacco isn’t just fake tobacco but cheap foreign brands with no legal market in the UK and smuggled genuine tobacco – globally there is evidence beyond doubt about the role of big tobacco in facilitating smuggling (3).

All people have to do to report anonymously is visit

The latest 2021 figures from the survey of 1878 people in Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and County Durham (including 100 children aged 14-17) found:

  • More than 7/10 children aged 14-17 who smoke (74%) have been offered illegal tobacco and half (49%) buy it. Houses or “tab houses” are the source for 75% and shops 14% of children’s illegal tobacco purchases
  • Around 11% of all tobacco smoked is illegal – largely unchanged since 2015 but lower than 2009 (15%). That means around 128m illegal cigarettes bought in the NE per year with an annual duty loss of around £55m
  • 15% of smokers in the sample area (or around 36,000 people) buy illegal tobacco. That’s down from 23% of smokers in 2011. However 61% of buyers now purchase it at least once a week – an increase
  • 43% of adult buyers mainly purchase from a house or “tab house”, and 29% from a shop (29%). Street sellers make up 9% of purchases and online only 5%
  • 16% of current smokers say they are often offered illegal tobacco
  • More than 8/10 buyers of illegal tobacco say it helps them to smoke

Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh and Balance, said: “1 in 2 long term smokers will die from smoking, regardless of where they buy legal or illegal tobacco. But cheap, illegal tobacco keeps smokers smoking, gets kids hooked and compounds health. inequalities. Dealers are linked to criminality and do not care if local children buy it.

“Tackling illegal tobacco is vital to make smoking history for future generations and help reduce the misery of smoking-caused diseases such as lung cancer or COPD in local communities.

“The Keep It Out campaign has resulted in thousands of pieces of information over a decade that has helped trading standards and other enforcement colleagues take illegal tobacco off the streets. No-one wants local criminals profiting from addiction or kids getting hooked which is why more and more people are helping to report sales.”

She added: “The good news is that fewer smokers are now buying illegal tobacco, but the bad news is that those who do buy it are more likely to be buying it more often.

“Price is a really important tool to help prevent children starting to smoke and to encourage smokers to quit, but what we need now is a new properly funded national tobacco control plan. That must include a levy on tobacco manufacturer profits to fund prevention work, a requirement for anyone selling tobacco to have a licence, and also increased funding for local trading standards work to tackle illegal tobacco.”

Tim Holmes, Manager of Sunderland Specialist Stop Smoking Service, said: “Our stop smoking services see thousands of smokers every year, and most people bitterly regret ever starting. All tobacco kills – whether it is legal or illegal – but illegal tobacco is often sold in communities where smoking rates are high and sadly life shattering diseases like COPD and lung cancer are too common as a result.

“Cheap, illegal cigarettes prey on people’s addiction, and often get kids hooked on a lifetime of tobacco smoking which can only harm their health and shorten their lives.

“We always advise that as an alternative to smoking, switching to vaping completely can help individuals to quit for good. E-cigarettes are significantly less harmful for health than tobacco and can help smokers save thousands of pounds a year too.”

Shopkeeper John McClurey, whose own father died from smoking, said: “Retailers are adjusting to the reality that tobacco sales are on the long-term decline as more and more smokers are quitting and fewer young people are taking it up.

“Most retailers always abide by the rules but too often we see illegal tobacco being sold from shops – including to children – and more needs to be done to clamp down on the sellers. Trading Standards provide an excellent service, supporting businesses and enforcing tobacco laws, but there is still a criminal minority who need to be dealt with.”

What is illegal tobacco?

  • Illicit whites – brands which have no legal market in the UK
  • 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


[1] Illicit Tobacco Tracking Study 1828 interviews – 1055 smokers, 165 illicit tobacco buyers Young person study was among 14-17 year old smokers – 100 interviews – Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear.

[2] Keep It Out is a major campaign aimed at tackling the illegal tobacco market and launches w/c 2 August in Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear.


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