Illegal (sometimes referred to as 'illicit') tobacco products (such as cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco) are those which have not had the duty (tax) paid on them or they have been smuggled into the country or illegally produced.

Spotting illegal tobacco

There are three sources of illegal tobacco (smuggled, bootlegged and fake). The tell tale signs are:

  • unusual taste
  • popular brand or foreign brand names such as Raquel and Jin Ling
  • cheap price (less than £3.50 for a pack of 20)
  • health warnings on cigarette packaging might not be in English, might not display a picture, might not be printed on a white background and may have different sized lettering to usual
  • unusual packaging (spelling mistakes, wrong logos, discoloured packaging)
  • the print quality of the detail on the cigarette is noticeably worse 

The harm of illegal tobacco

  • Health: young people can access cheap cigarettes because sales are unregulated, so they make it easier for children to take up the habit. In addition, fake products have been found to contain high levels of contaminants eg up to six times the level of lead and three times the level of arsenic found in ordinary cigarettes (as well as rat and mouse droppings and dead insects).
  • Cost: tobacco smuggling costs the government more than £3 billion a year in lost revenue. Reducing the illegal market would mean more money being paid to the government and less tax needing to be raised by other means.
  • Crime: similar to drug dealing the distribution of cheap, smuggled and fake tobacco products increases the instances of criminality and nuisance in communities and neighbourhoods. The recession and falling demand has forced many drug gangs dealing in cocaine and heroin to turn to selling illegal tobacco to vulnerable people as a source of easy cash.
  • Safety: all legal cigarettes are manufactured to meet a reduced ignition propensity (RIP) requirement. This means they are self-extinguishable, to reduce the chance that they should set fire to sofas, beds and other combustible materials. Illegal cigarettes are not self-extinguishable and have been attributed to a number of house fires and deaths.

Agencies that deal with illegal tobacco

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is the lead agency responsible for tackling the illegal trade in tobacco products. The operational responsibility for enforcement at UK borders is the UK Borders Agency (UKBA). Trading Standards are the primary agency that enforces legislation regarding the sale of these products.

Trading Standards has a key role to play at a local level detecting and seizing illegal tobacco products as appropriate. At regional level joint operations with HMRC may be required to tackle the supply chain.

Reporting it

If you suspect someone of supplying illegal tobacco and want to report them go to report a consumer issue webpage or Stop Illegal Tobacco website.

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