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Illegal tobacco down to record low

A MAJOR tracking survey of smokers and non-smokers in the North East of England has backed up official HMRC figures which show smugglers have lost ground in the UK’s tobacco market.


Despite the recession, tougher action to reduce the supply and demand and stop dealers selling has resulted in illicit tobacco driven down to just 9% of the total North East tobacco market in 2013.


The independent North East Illicit Tobacco Survey, commissioned by Fresh and the North of England Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health Programme, has analysed the attitudes and buying patterns of thousands of people across the North East in communities where illegal tobacco has been a problem.


The figures - significant since the North East still has higher than average smoking rates - back up the most recent official statistics from HMRC which show the illicit market has halved since the late 1990s. HMRC data shows 9% of cigarettes were illegal in 2010-11, compared to one in five (21%) in 2000-01.T


There has been a steady decline in the proportion of smokers buying illicit tobacco, especially among 16-34-year-olds, while those smokers who do buy illicit tobacco are buying less of it.


The independent survey found:
• The illegal tobacco market now makes up just 9% of the overall tobacco market in the North East, compared to 13% in 2011 and 15% in 2009
• Only one in six smokers (17%) now buys illegal tobacco - down from one in five (20%) smokers buying it in 2011 and one in four (24%) smokers in 2009.
• The total volume of illegal tobacco bought is down 27% on 2011 which was in turn down 41% on 2009. That means 192 million fewer cigarettes and hand rolled a year worth around £56m in duty.
• Just over four in ten smokers have been offered illicit tobacco, down from more than half in 2011.


The survey also revealed where smokers buy illegal tobacco. Pubs and clubs and private addresses were the two leading venues where the purchase of illicit tobacco takes place across the region (30% each), followed to a lesser extent by shops (16%). Car boot sales and mobile food vans are other sources.


The North of England Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health Programme launched in 2009 by Fresh and Tobacco Free Futures to bring together the work of the NHS, police, trading standards and HMRC.


 Raising awareness of the problems illegal tobacco causes - especially in getting children hooked on smoking - has been a priority to encourage people to share information about local supply sources and make buying “illicit” less publicly acceptable. The Keep It Out campaign has run in both the North East and North West.


 Fewer people now think selling illegal tobacco is acceptable, with seven out of ten adults “very uncomfortable” with illegal tobacco being sold in their area. Only one in ten smokers is “comfortable” with illegal tobacco.


While fewer smokers are buying illicit tobacco and duty frees, more price conscious smokers are turning to hand rolled tobacco.


Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh, said: “These findings are important as we can correlate our data with how often smokers buy or come across illegal tobacco with HMRC’s own data, which compares at how much people are smoking and the tax gap.


"The picture emerging from this anonymous, self-reported behaviour in communities with higher smoking rates is strikingly similar to HMRC’s official figures.


“What is also interesting is that this fall is happening in the middle of a recession when more people are struggling financially and seeking a bargain.


 “Tobacco companies who sell a lethal product are doing their best to hype fears that illegal tobacco is out of control, hoping this will undermine proposals for plain, standardised packaging, but their figures are based on the contents of an unspecified number of litter bins.”


Deborah Arnott Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health said "This survey is important new evidence that Britain is getting to grips with the illicit tobacco trade. Thanks to hard work by customs, trading standards, police, health and tobacco control groups around the country the level of tobacco smuggling is continuing to fall. Every independent survey shows this. But every survey funded by the tobacco industry claims the opposite: the industry cynically hypes the threat of illicit trade in support of its fight to stop standardised packaging of cigarettes and other moves to encourage people to quit smoking.”


Richard Ferry, of the North East Trading Standards Association, said: “This gives us useful intelligence about where smokers are buying illegal tobacco and the type of new brands hitting the illegal market, like Turner.


“Trading standards have a crucial role locally in disrupting the supply of illegal cigarettes in communities. It is clear we need to keep disrupting known supply outlets like tab houses, but also remain aware that places like pubs, clubs and shops where illegal tobacco is being sold.”


The findings are revealed as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health released a report on illegal tobacco which praised work by the North of England Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health Programme, launched in 2009 to bring together the work of FRESH Smoke Free North East, Tobacco Free Futures in the North West, councils, HMRC and police to tackle the demand and supply of illicit tobacco.


The All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health held a three day inquiry into illegal tobacco, and published its findings in March. It highlighted the North of England Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health Programme’s work in reducing the demand for and market share of illegal tobacco, and recommended ongoing action to drive the market down even further. It also highlighted that there is evidence of continuing involvement in illicit trade by major tobacco manufacturers.


 Anyone with information about illegal tobacco being sold can phone Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111 or report on line at


Anyone wanting to quit smoking should contact the Smokefree helpline on 0800 022 4 332 to find details of quitting tools and practical support, or click on