Illegal tobacco trade is £20m market in south-east London

lit cigarette with smoke

Report says criminal gangs are behind trade in illegal cigarettes Photo: Tomasz Sienicki

Illegal cigarettes with a street value of over £22million are sold annually in south-east London by organised criminal gangs, according to a council report.

The report was commissioned earlier this year, with findings published on August 8, by Lewisham Council together with Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich, Lambeth and Southwark Councils.

More than 1,700 local smokers were surveyed about their tobacco buying habits.

Dr Gerald Power, author of the report ‘Illicit Tobacco in South East London’, said:  “This illicit trade can sometimes be seen as a ‘Robin Hood’ type enterprise with a few locals smuggling a van load of cigarettes back for their friends from abroad.

“If this ever was true in the past, the reality now is very different.

“Criminal gangs are heavily involved in the trade and bring both illicit goods as well as drugs into the heart of our communities.”

A number of the report’s key findings are:

– illicit tobacco represented around 15 per cent of the tobacco consumed

– 40 per cent of smokers indicated they had bought illicit tobacco in the last year, which implies a very high degree of acceptance of the illicit trade

– 80 per cent of smokers who bought illicit tobacco said they were known to or introduced to the seller implying that the market is largely covert

– more than 50 per cent of the illicit tobacco being bought was believed to be counterfeit and posed a fire risk in people homes

– illicit cigarettes are manufactured for as little as 15p per pack of 20 cigarettes but sold in the UK for around £4 per pack or less (compared to legal cigarettes which cost between £6 and £8 per pack)

– sellers of illicit tobacco are selling to people too young to legally buy tobacco products (aged 18)

The six councils behind the report have launched a campaign to combat illegally imported and counterfeit tobacco products including cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco.

Danny Ruta, Director of Public Health in Lewisham, said:  “The availability of cheap illicit tobacco is likely to be a major factor in recruiting young smokers and keeping people smoking in poorer communities.

“It has the clear potential to undermine the hard work that is done every year to discourage people from smoking.”

Specialist teams are being organised by the councils as they ramp up efforts to identify outlets selling illegal tobacco.

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