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Lockdown exposed reality of the illegal tobacco market

Tight restrictions on international travel have exposed the reality behind the illegal tobacco market – and it’s not duty frees that are for sale.

Reports from the public about illegal tobacco sales have continued to be made during lockdown, with Trading Standards receiving 139 North East reports about dealers since the beginning of March. Enforcement officers say any cheap tobacco bought during lockdown and touted as “duty free” is almost certainly illegal smuggled or fake tobacco.

Tobacco bought on the illegal market is more likely to be the result of organised criminal activity with links to human trafficking, the drugs trade and loan sharks. Dealers have also been caught selling to children, getting them hooked on smoking.

The Keep It Out campaign from Fresh is now in its tenth year. In that time it has generated intelligence for trading standards, police and HMRC to take action against dealers in local communities and highlights the problems that illegal tobacco causes in getting more kids hooked.

The campaign is now launching in Greater Manchester from Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, who have produced a new film showing the shocking truth behind the illegal tobacco trade- Watch at

Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh, said: Nobody wants their kids to start smoking and in the North East smoking rates have fallen faster than anywhere else in the country. All tobacco, no matter where it’s bought, is a toxic mix of thousands of chemicals that will kill half of all long-term users. But we know that too many kids get hold of tobacco from illegal sources, getting them hooked onto a lethal addiction. People who sell illegal tobacco don’t care if they sell to kids.

“Illegal tobacco is also sold at cheaper prices, and because it’s cheaper, smokers who buy it are less likely to try to quit even though many would want to. Our work with Trading Standards to reduce the amount of illegal tobacco on our streets has continued through lockdown because we know the market isn’t just about illegal duty free sales – it’s a much bigger problem than that, with organised gangs selling smuggled tobacco to fund their criminal activities.”

Owen Cleugh, consumer protection manager at Durham County Council, said: “It is often assumed that cheap tobacco sold from shops or houses is the result of people bringing home additional cigarettes and tobacco after travelling abroad. However, even during lockdown, our enforcement officers have continued to receive intelligence about illegal tobacco sales, despite the restrictions on international travel. This reinforces the reality that the illegal market has links to serious, organised crime

“Dealing with illegal tobacco sales continues to be a priority for our Trading Standards team. Not only does the trade bring crime into our communities, it means that children can buy cigarettes cheaply. The trade also undermines the work of our public health colleagues who are working hard to reduce smoking rates across the county. Those who sell illegal tobacco should know that we will take action against them.”

The illegal tobacco market is made up of three key types of tobacco:

  • Tobacco or cigarettes with no legal market in the UK, often from Eastern Europe – sometimes known as “cheap whites.”
  • UK brands which are smuggled into the country and sold without duty being paid.
  • Counterfeit or fakes – illegally manufactured and made to look like recognised brands.

It is part of broader efforts to reduce the smoking rate in the North East of England.  15.3% of adults in the North East currently smoke compared to 29% in 2005.  But tobacco remains a key driver of health inequalities across the region and over half the difference in life expectancy between the most and least affluent groups is due to smoking.

The illegal tobacco market in the North East has reduced in the last ten years, from 15% in 2009 to 10% in 2019.  National figures from HMRC show that illegal cigarettes make up 9% of the total cigarette market in 2018/19, compared to 20% in 2000.  The illegal hand rolling tobacco market has also reduced from 61% in 2000 to 34% in 2018/19. 

All people need to do to anonymously report illegal tobacco sales is visit or call 0300 999 0000.  The information will be sent to Trading Standards and treated in complete confidence.

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