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Lockdown exposes the 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.

Recent seizures made by Trading Standards show that smuggled and often fake illegal tobacco products continued to be sold in shops and from homes during lockdown when overseas travel was restricted. Enforcement officers say any cheap tobacco bought during lockdown and touted as “duty free” is almost certainly illegal 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 will also sell to children, getting them hooked on smoking.

It comes as the Keep It Out campaign, from Fresh in the North East and the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, raises awareness of the harms of illegal tobacco as part of wider efforts to reduce smoking. The campaign is now in its 10th year running in the North of England. It aims to make people think about the real human cost of illegal tobacco, so they report where it’s being sold, generating intelligence for Trading Standards, police and HMRC.

Overall, the size of the illicit tobacco market has reduced significantly in the last decade.  UK government data shows the estimated amount of illegal cigarettes consumed has reduced by half from 5 billion illicit sticks in 2010 to 2.5 billion in 2019.  But illegal tobacco still remains an issue because it gets children and young people hooked: between a quarter and a half of all young smokers buy illegal tobacco, sometimes bringing them into contact with a wider criminal underworld (1).

A new film highlights the shocking truth behind the illegal tobacco trade:

Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh, which leads the Illicit Tobacco Partnership, said: “The Keep It Out campaign has generated thousands of pieces of information about illegal tobacco now over a number of years.

“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.”

Andrea Crossfield, Making Smoking History Lead at the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “Illegal tobacco is not a bargain – it comes at a high price to our children and our communities. No one wants their kids to get hooked on smoking but two in three young people who start smoking continue with it.

“Legal or illegal, all tobacco contains a toxic cocktail of chemicals which will kill one in two long term smokers. Illegal cigarettes are often responsible for getting children started on this lethal addiction, because of their availability at pocket money prices and people who sell illegal tobacco don’t care if they sell to kids.”

Kate Pike from Trading Standards North West 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. The Keep it Out campaign exposes the reality behind the illegal tobacco trade. Those who sell illegal tobacco should know that we will take action against them.”

An HMRC spokesperson said: “Trade in illegal tobacco comes at a cost as it often funds wider organised crime that causes real harm to our communities, undermines legitimate traders, and takes funding away from our vital public services.

“That’s why we support the Keep It Out campaign and will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to crack down on this criminal trade. We encourage anyone with information regarding the production, smuggling, storage or sale of illicit tobacco to report it.”

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.

Reporting is easy and anonymous – visit, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or call the Keep It Out reporting line on 0300 999 0000, to report illegal tobacco sales.

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