An urgent review of illicit trade sanctions and sentencing is being called for after a new Trading Standards report revealed a steep rise in illicit tobacco seizures and high levels of repeat offending.

Illicit tobacco products worth almost £1m were seized during Operation Henry 2 (OH2) – 18% higher than the first operation, carried out by Trading Standards in 2014.

OH2, managed by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) on behalf of the Department of Health, was conducted in April 2016 across all nine English regions by 67 trading standards services.

In total, 42% of premises visited in the intelligence-led operation were found to be selling illicit tobacco products, of which 57% were repeat offenders.

Illicit tobacco seizures were highest in the West Midlands, where 68% of the intelligence-led raids resulted in the discovery of illegal stock, closely followed by the East Midlands and London at 57%.

The high levels of repeat offending indicated that current sanctions and penalties were not tough enough, Leon Livermore, chief executive of the CTSI said.

“Projects like OH2 allow trading standards to share information and develop intelligence to help get illegal tobacco off the streets but the findings have shown a high level of repeat offending.

“Local authorities must take appropriate enforcement action against individuals that disregard the law but it could be that the current sanctions and penalties available are not acting as a sufficient deterrent to criminals.

“In addition, courts might not be imposing the maximum penalties available to them or the range of sanctions are no longer fit for purpose. A further review of this is necessary to tackle the problem.”

Together, trading standards officers confiscated around 2.9 million cigarettes and 1,272kg of illicit hand-rolling tobacco from all regions of England – an additional 205,591 sticks and 547.22 kg of illicit hand rolling tobacco compared with Operation Henry 1.

Welcoming the report, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) also called for a review of existing sanctions.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “This report shows that there is an unacceptable illicit tobacco market in the UK undermining the majority of legitimate convenience retailers selling tobacco responsibly.

“These figures support our view that introducing a system of tobacco licensing would be a costly and bureaucratic waste of time while existing penalties for this serious crime are not being enforced.

“We have called on the government to review the sanctions and powers available to HMRC for tackling illicit tobacco and non-duty alcohol and provide more funding for enforcement action.

“Where retailers are found to persistently trade in illicit product they should feel the full force of the law by losing their alcohol licence or receive a tobacco banning order.”

‘Cheap white’ cigarettes accounted for the largest volume of illicit products seized, ahead of genuine smuggled brands and counterfeit versions.

The main brands of cheap white cigarettes seized were West, Winston, NZ Minsk and Fest; this is a change from from the 2014 operation when Jin Ling was the most frequently seized cheap white cigarette.  

A number of other goods were seized during OH2 including: illicit alcohol and counterfeit Viagra, cannabis and cash. Immigration issues were also reported to the Border Agency.

Illicit tobacco products are estimated to leave the public purse around £2.1bn short per year.