An undercover operation in Staffordshire has revealed widespread availability of illegal tobacco, with nearly six (57%) in 10 smokers having been offered it in the past year and more than half (55%) having knowingly bought it.

The study of 450 adult smokers, conducted for Japan Tobacco International (JTI), also revealed that over half (53%) would not report it if they were offered illegal tobacco, even though they knew it could fund organised crime.

In addition, 43% said they had bought cigarettes with foreign language health warnings on the packs and 24% had bought tobacco from family or friends who had been abroad.

The fact that illegal tobacco was “readily available” was the main reason that adult smokers gave for buying it, closely followed by “saving money,” and smaller packs no longer being available since the implementation of the European Tobacco Products Directive last year.

Additional mystery shopping research, also conducted for JTI, revealed high levels of illicit tobacco being sold in Stoke stores.

One in three of the stores visited in Stoke was found to be selling illegal products.

Illicit Roll Your Own tobacco (RYO) was found in the greatest quantities, with mystery shoppers able to buy 17 illicit RYO products and four cigarette products from 17 of the 48 stores they visited.

The typical price for 20 illicit cigarettes was £3.50 (versus about £8.00 for genuine products) while a 50g pack of illicit RYO was either £4.00 or £4.50 (versus £21).

All of the 13 JTI products purchased were later found to be counterfeit.

The UK government estimates that illegal tobacco makes up around 15% of the cigarette market and 28% of RYO tobacco in the UK, resulting in around £2.5bn of lost tax revenue in 2016/17. Since 2000/1, the total revenue loss is £43.5 bn.

JTI’s anti-illegal trade operations director Steve Wilkins said: “The link of illegal tobacco to serious and organised crime is very real, and JTI hopes to rid our streets of illegal tobacco and stop criminals infiltrating our communities.

“We urge local residents and retailers to work with community groups and trading standards to eradicate this type of activity.

“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 anyone, including children.

“The availability of cheap illegal tobacco across towns and cities in the UK is damaging local communities and along with retailers, suppliers and the government we all have a role to play to combat the issue.

“Anyone with information about this type of crime should contact HM Revenue & Customs’ Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887 or Trading Standards on 03454 04 05 06.”