Lambert and Butler_Smuggled Cigarettes Tobacco Illicit

Four out of five UK smokers purchased illicit tobacco in the past year, new research has found.

The survey, commissioned by the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA), polled 12,000 UK smokers between October and December 2023.

Covering their attitudes, awareness and understanding of illegal tobacco, the research revealed that 80% of respondents bought tobacco in the last year that was not subject to UK tax - a 6% increase on the previous year.

The study also found that nearly three-quarters of respondents have seen an illegal 20-pack of cigarettes priced between £3.00-£6.00, as opposed to the mean average RRP of £15.26 for a legally priced 20-pack of cigarettes, and that 35% of people buy ‘branded’ tobacco at least once a week, with one in five people only buying ‘branded’ cigarettes and Roll-Your-Own tobacco, even though all legal tobacco has been sold in plain packaging in the UK since 2016.

A rise in tobacco tax along with the cost of living crisis were cited as the main reasons a change in tobacco purchasing habits.

The findings prompted the TMA to warn that the government’s planned generational smoking ban will only push more people towards the illicit trade.

Commenting on the figures, TMA director Rupert Lewis said: “The latest evidence in this year’s survey, canvassing the views of over 12,000 adult smokers across the UK, points to the highest increase in consumers who are buying illegal tobacco at least once in the last year – 80% of those surveyed – and even more worrying, one in five respondents claim to only buy branded tobacco products which have been illegal in the UK since 2016.”

“I believe that there will be profound and far-reaching repercussions for consumers, retailers, law enforcement agencies and communities across the UK if a phased generational ban becomes law. In time, it will push the entire UK tobacco market underground, and I urge the Government to reflect hard on the consequences of this policy decision and the lasting impact that it will have on the UK.”

The TMA also warned that a phased generational smoking ban could lead to more abuse towards retailers and staff that will be enforcing any legislation.

It also criticised the government’s funding to tackle the illicit trade, stating that by the government’s own estimates, the illegal tobacco trade already costs at least £2.8bn a year in lost taxes, and over £54bn in total since 2000), “it is very difficult to see what sustained impact this funding will make”.

The Tobacco and Vape Bill will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 April.