The government's pledge to tackle illegal supply gets a cautious welcome

The government has vowed to tackle the supply of illicit tobacco into the UK as a key component of its latest tobacco control strategy.

The strategy contains no further restrictions on retailers to add to those introduced in the 2009 Health Bill, but instead highlights the dangers of illegal imports. Health secretary Andy Burnham said immediate investment in extra overseas officers would prevent 200 million cigarettes entering the UK every year.

The document contains no mention of a licensing scheme for tobacco retailers, and commits only to "careful consideration" of the case for plain packaging.

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman welcomed the focus on the black market, but questioned the emphasis on overseas prevention. "While the strategy sets out plans to do more in tackling the illicit trade overseas, it still does not address the issue of black market racketeers on the street," he said. "There needs to be a focus on inland enforcement, spearheaded by new tougher penalties for bootleggers and greater investment."

Tobacco Manufacturers' Association chief executive Christopher Ogden also challenged the government's thinking. "It is contradictory to declare an intention to reduce illicit trade and then to favour ineffective measures, such as the display ban, that actually facilitate illicit trade," he said.

The decision not to propose tobacco licensing for convenience stores was welcome, Lowman said. "Such a policy would penalise only responsible retailers, while doing nothing to address the minority of irresponsible retailers, bootleggers and adults who are the main source of tobacco for young people."

The announcement coincides with a new government-backed programme involving 25 local authorities that will receive grants to establish Tobacco Control Officers, who would be responsible for investigating illicit trade.

Tobacco Retailers Alliance spokesman Ken Patel said: "This is fantastic news as the illicit trade in tobacco will be tackled at a local level."