Shopkeepers jailed after illegal tobacco, alcohol seizure
Illegal cigarettes and tobacco found by HMRC investigators from Wrexham-based shopkeepers Hallmat Mahmood and Dara Ahmed. Photo: HMRC

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, has called for courts to impose bigger fines for selling illegal tobacco.

LGA warned that the illegal tobacco trade is rife and undermining efforts to reduce smoking. Millions of cheap, illegal cigarettes are flooding the market with criminals selling them on Facebook and rogue traders using sophisticated secret places to store them, it added.

“The sale of cheap, illegal tobacco by rogue traders in shops, private homes and through social media is funding organised criminal gangs and damaging legitimate traders, as well as making it easier for young people to get hooked on smoking, which undermines councils’ efforts to help people quit,” said Cllr Simon Blackburn, chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board.

Recent council hauls have seen sniffer dogs used to trace and remove bootlegged and counterfeit tobacco from the streets as they continue to crack down on the illegal trade. In recent prosecutions illegal stashes of cigarettes have been found hidden in sophisticated hiding places in the walls and floors of shops and secret panels in cupboards.

Fake or counterfeit cigarettes are made to look like popular UK brands but typically have foreign health warnings and no picture health warnings, while non-duty paid, or bootlegged cigarettes, are UK brands usually brought into the country from abroad and sold illegally.

The statement also pointed out that this illegal trade costs the UK economy more than £2 billion a year in unpaid duty.

Many fake cigarettes contain even higher levels of toxic ingredients such as tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide than genuine brand-name cigarettes – which are still harmful to health. Fake cigarettes also pose a greater fire risk as they do not include designs that ensure that a lit cigarette will self-extinguish if not actively smoked.

“Bigger fines need to be imposed by the courts to deter the sale of illegal tobacco to help councils’ enforcement work against rogue traders, reduce crime in our communities and protect the health of children and young people,” Blackburn added.

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman, in a statement, echoed the sentiment: “Trading standards officers need more powers to stamp the sale of illicit tobacco. If a small shop is found to be persistently selling non-duty paid cigarettes they should be stopped from trading and feel the full force of the law.”

Packaging industry, in a response, attributed the increase in counterfeit packs to the plain packaging rules.

“The upward trend of counterfeit packs has been entirely predictable and has increased since the introduction of Plain Packaging. The ‘simple specification’ plain pack eliminated design complexity from the pack specification making the job of a counterfeiter much easier,” said Mike Ridgway, the director of the Consumer Packaging Manufactures Alliance.

Consumers who are concerned about any tobacco product on sale are encouraged to report the matter to the Citizens Advice Consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06.