A Bolton-based retailer has urged far greater street level action on illicit tobacco, after a mystery shopping operation in the town revealed that 62% of stores visited were found to be selling illicit tobacco.

Of the 37 stores visited in the JTI-conducted operation, 23 sold mystery shoppers illicit tobacco.

A number of the retailers sold counterfeit JTI tobacco products, with counterfeit 50g packs of hand rolling tobacco on sale from £4.00, less than a quarter of the price of a genuine pack.

All of the illegal products were also in branded packaging, which has been banned from sale since May 2017.

Baz Jethwa, who owns two Spar stores in Bolton, said the problem was reaching “crisis point”.

“In the last two years the illicit tobacco trade has just exploded. Not far off £500,000 has been wiped off my yearly turnover as a result of shoppers visiting other stores to buy cheaper illicit tobacco and other items,” he told Convenience Store.

“Regular customers will come in from their bread and milk but they’ll say, I don’t need my fags today, I got them for cheaper elsewhere.

“Consumer education campaigns don’t seem to be working, when we talk to shoppers about the additional health risks associated with illegal products they say they don’t care about the dangers, they are buying on price.

“There’s one store not far from us that we’ve been told is selling three 20 packs of ‘cheap white cigarettes’ for just £20. Our cheapest pack of 20 is not far off £10. How do we compete with that?

“It all feels pretty hopeless, we’ve raised the issue with Trading Standards, Crime Stoppers and even Spar several times but it just feels like nothing is being done to actually tackle it at street level. It’s very tough,” he added.

The UK government estimates that illegal tobacco makes up around 15% of the cigarette market and 28% of the hand-rolling tobacco market in the UK.

This resulted in £2.5bn of lost tax revenue in 2016/17, with a total revenue loss of £43.5bn since 2000.

Steve Wilkins, JTI’s anti-illegal trade operations director and former detective chief superintendent, said: “The vast majority of retailers are the ‘Gatekeepers’ for age-restricted products and they help to ensure that children do not get hold of tobacco products.

“Unfortunately, the criminals who sell illegal tobacco within our communities do not operate a ‘No ID No Sale’ policy and will sell to all-comers, including children.”

“Illegal tobacco is damaging our local community, funding organised crime and undermining local businesses.”

Earlier this year JTI launched a new anti-illicit trade campaign called ‘Don’t Be Complicit In Illicit’ to help rid the streets of illegal tobacco.

Anyone with information about this type of crime should visit www.jtiadvance.co.uk/DontBeComplicit or contact Trading Standards on 03454 04 05 06.