Thefts from cash and carry depots, delivery vehicles and retailers’ cars are fuelling the illicit trade in tobacco and putting lives at risk, wholesalers have told a parliamentary inquiry.

Since the start of 2012, more than four million cigarettes with a street value of £1m have been stolen from wholesalers and retail customers, both in depots and in transit to stores, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) told the Home Office Select Committee’s inquiry into the illicit trade in tobacco.

“Tobacco products have a significant value to black market operators and wholesalers believe it is unacceptable for depot staff, drivers or customers to be put at risk,” FWD director of communications David Visick said.

It is calling for police to put more resources into preventing and investigating wholesale crime.

The FWD also believes that police “often incorrectly” categorise wholesale-related crime, forcing it lower down their priority list. Crimes where staff or customers are threatened, but there is no physical violence, are often classified as theft from a motor vehicle. The FWD believes that they should be classified as violent crime, and receive an appropriate response from the police.

In July alone, the FWD received 13 reports of thefts from retailer customers.

“Given the value of the goods involved and the potential harm from uncontrolled sales, we believe theft of tobacco products must be given greater consideration when allocating police resources,” Visick added.

The FWD’s recommendations also call for information sharing between police forces to be improved, and for drivers, wholesalers and retailers to be treated as victims of crime.