The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) has hit out at Action on Smoking and Health’s (ASH) calls for the government to introduce a licensing system for retailers that sell tobacco.

The latest official estimates from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) reveal that the size of the illicit market for cigarettes in 2016/17 has remained fairly stable since 2010 as smoking has declined significantly, but it has become a higher proportion of the total tobacco market.

The proportion of the market that illicit products account for has increased between 2015/16 and 2016/17 from 13% to 15% of cigarettes although it has continued to fall from 32% to 28% of hand-rolled tobacco.

ASH said there was a pressing need for the government to do more to require tobacco companies to control their supply chains because most of the illicit market was made up of tobacco company products smuggled into the UK from other countries.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said funding cuts to local authorities and the failure of tobacco companies to prevent diversion of their products to the smuggled market had undermined the effectiveness of the government’s anti-smuggling strategy.

“We call on the government to introduce licensing for tobacco manufacturers and retailers and to make the big tobacco companies pay for it.

“The US does this and there’s no reason why the UK can’t follow suit. It’s strongly supported both by the public and by retailers and would help achieve the government’s ambition for a smoke-free generation as well as increasing tax revenues,” said Arnott.

James Lowman, ACS chief executive, responded: “We do not believe that tobacco licensing is an effective deterrent to the illicit trade and instead serves only to impose financial and administrative burdens on retailers.

“We believe that local enforcement authorities should be given more powers to deal with those who supply and sell illicit goods, including the power to remove alcohol licences from offenders,” said Lowman.