An undercover operation conducted for Japan Tobacco International (JTI) in Staffordshire has revealed the widespread availability of illegal tobacco, with 17 out of the 48 stores visited in Stoke found to be selling illegal products.

Additional consumer research also conducted for JTI revealed that more than half (55%) of smokers in Staffordshire say they have bought fake cigarettes.

The investigation also found that nearly six in ten (57%) smokers in Staffordshire had been offered illegal tobacco in the past year, and over half (53%) would not report it if they were offered illegal tobacco, even though it could fund organised crime.

In addition, 43% have bought cigarettes with foreign language health warnings on the pack and 24% have bought tobacco from family or friends who had been abroad.

The operation revealed that the typical price for a pack of illegal cigarettes was £3.50 (versus about £8.00 for genuine products) while a 50g pack of illegal roll your own tobacco (RYO) was either £4.00 or £4.50 (versus £21).

The UK government estimates that illegal tobacco makes up around 15% of the cigarette market and 28% of RYO tobacco in the UK, resulting in around £2.5 billion of lost tax revenue in 2016/17. Since 2000/1, the total revenue loss is £43.5 billion.

Steve Wilkins, JTI’s anti-illegal trade operations director and former detective chief superintendent, commented: “Illegal tobacco refers to the tobacco smoked in the UK that has been brought into the country through smuggling and other forms of fraud, including counterfeits and products with foreign language health warnings on the pack. It also covers those who buy tobacco products from family or friends who have been abroad.”

“Smokers buying cheap fake cigarettes and tobacco on the streets of Staffordshire may be getting more than they bargain for as these fake imitations have been found to contain asbestos, mould, dust, dead flies, rat droppings and even human excrement.

“The link of illegal tobacco to serious and organised crime is very real, and JTI hopes to rid our streets of illegal tobacco and stop criminals infiltrating our communities. We urge local residents and retailers to work with community groups and trading standards to eradicate this type of activity.

“The vast majority of retailers are the “Gatekeepers” for age-restricted products and they help to ensure that children do not get hold of tobacco products. Unfortunately, the criminals who sell illegal tobacco within our communities do not operate a ‘No ID No Sale’ policy and will sell to anyone, including children.

“The availability of cheap illegal tobacco across towns and cities in the UK is damaging local communities and along with retailers, suppliers and the Government we all have a role to play to combat the issue. Anyone with information about this type of crime should contact HM Revenue & Customs’ Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887 or Trading Standards on 03454 04 05 06.”