Responsible convenience store retailers are increasingly losing out to a new and rapidly growing threat as illicit tobacco sales move from the streets to cyber space.
Imperial Tobacco said there had been “a huge increase in the advertising and sales of illegal tobacco on the internet”, while up to 98% of all big tobacco brands bought via the internet are now thought to be illicit, according to the Scottish Anti Illicit Trade Group.
The problem is expected to mount in the lead up to Christmas when smoking rates tend to rise and small stores react to the display ban.
According to former Scotland Yard detective chief inspector and illicit trade expert Will O’Reilly, who now carries out investigations for Philip Morris Ltd (PML), PML alone has identified more than 40 Facebook pages where its brands are being sold illicitly.
And the problem is not limited to UK brands. The internet is also “awash” with cheap whites - legitimate foreign brands which are smuggled into the UK where they have no legal market.
Many of these ‘cheap white’ cigarettes such as ‘Fest’ are being sold on Eastern European forum-style websites.
“In most cases money doesn’t change hands on the sites. Instead, sellers include their phone numbers and buyers call to arrange a meeting place for the sale,” O’Reilly explained.
“The problem with these websites is that the servers are in Eastern Europe, which makes it difficult for the UK authorities to do anything about.
“However, even when servers are in this country, Trading Standards don’t have the time to monitor the whole internet and HMRC has bigger fish to fry. In the meantime, legitimate retailers are losing out,” O’Reilly added.
SGF public affairs manager John Lee told C-Store it was concerned that Trading Standards might not have the resources to “take effective action against the proliferation of online illicit trade”.
“JTI is aware that social media is providing criminals with a platform to sell illegal tobacco. The enforcement agencies and the public need to take a stand and report it on 0800 59 5000.”
JTI head of communications Jeremy Blackburn
“There has been a huge increase in the sale of illegal tobacco on the internet. We are working with law enforcement to focus on this nefarious activity. ”
Peter Nelson, Imperial Tobacco anti-illicit trade manager
Criminals turn to Facebook
Last month a Scottish Facebook page selling cheap white Fest cigarettes hit the headlines after racking up more than 17,000 followers in less than a week.
The page, which has since been shut down, posted pictures of the illicit cigarettes along with a mobile number of a courier.
Packs of 200 Fest cigarettes were being offered for as little as £30.
Cheap white cigarettes are now thought to account for almost 50% of the UK’s illicit tobacco market - and 1.1 billion were thought to have been smoked in 2013, a recent KPMG study found.