An educational campaign for retailers to counter the illicit trade in tobacco has been launched by Philip Morris Limited (PML).

In a pilot for the campaign the tobacco company will use its newly created national field force to meet with 250 independent retailers in and around the Manchester area over the next three months.

Manchester has been identified as a key city to target by PML after test purchase activity was undertaken by Will O’Reilly, a former Scotland Yard detective chief inspector. During the three-day test period 32 separate purchases of illicit tobacco products were made, more than in any other test purchase location this year to date.

O’Reilly commented: “We found illicit cigarettes easy to obtain in Manchester. Contraband cigarettes are smuggled illegally into the country with unpaid duty and VAT. Once here they are sold cheaply in shops and pubs, including to children.

“The Treasury is losing billions of pounds a year and that shortfall has to be found somewhere, costing every family over £250 a year. The problem is growing because organised criminals are moving away from more dangerous activities like drug smuggling, to tobacco where there is more profit.”

An Empty Discarded Pack Collection Survey by MSIntelligence has shown the increasing use of illicit cigarettes in the North West. Manchester had a ’non domestic’ rate of 18.7% in the second quarter of, 2013 which increased to 26.8% a year later, meaning over a quarter of all cigarettes smoked in the North West are contributing nothing to the exchequer. Many of these will have been counterfeit, bootlegged or smuggled.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) estimates that nationwide illegal tobacco costs the taxpayer £2bn a year.

Supported by HMRC’s Hotline and Crimestoppers, the educational campaign will champion retailers as responsible sellers and seeks to drive awareness of the illicit trade in tobacco and the effect it has on legitimate businesses.