An undercover operation conducted for Japan Tobacco International in Staffordshire has found more than one in three stores selling illegal tobacco.
The investigation found that 17 of the 48 stores visited in Stoke sold illegal tobacco, while nearly six in 10 (57%) of smokers in Staffordshire had been offered it in the past year.
In addition, up to 53% of respondents said they would not report being offered illegal tobacco, even though it could fund organised crime.
Up to 24% have also bought tobacco from family or friends who have been abroad, while 43% have bought packs with foreign health warnings.
Typically a pack of illegal cigarettes cost £3.50 compared with £8 for legitimate products. Meanwhile, a 50g pack of illegal roll your own tobacco costs between £3.50 and £4, vastly undercutting the legal products selling for £21.
Illegal tobacco costs the UK government about £2.5bn in lost tax revenue from 2016-2017, and makes up around 15% of the total tobacco market.
“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,” said JTI anti-illegal trade operations director Steve Wilkins.
“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.”