Local councils are calling on the courts to impose heftier fines on individuals convicted of selling illicit tobacco in a bid to crack down on the trade, which is costing the UK economy more than £2bn a year in unpaid duty.

The illicit tobacco trade is currently “rife” and undermining efforts to reduce smoking, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales.

“Millions of cheap, illegal cigarettes are flooding the market with criminals selling them on Facebook and rogue traders using sophisticated secret places to store them,” said councillor Simon Blackburn, chair of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board.

“The sale of cheap, illegal tobacco by rogue traders in shops, private homes and through social media is funding organised criminal gangs and damaging legitimate traders, as well as making it easier for young people to get hooked on smoking, which undermines councils’ efforts to help people quit.

“Bigger fines need to be imposed by the courts to deter the sale of illegal tobacco to help councils’ enforcement work against rogue traders, reduce crime in our communities and protect the health of children and young people.”

In a recent prosecution, by Durham County Council, a married couple caught selling illicit tobacco from their home were ordered to pay just over £1,000 for their crime.

In a separate prosecution by the same council, a man found in possession of 2,580 illegal cigarettes and 180 50g pouches of counterfeit tobacco worth around £4,300, was ordered to pay just £531 in costs and received a six-month community order.

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) agreed that tougher sanctions needed to be imposed on those selling illicit tobacco.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “Trading standards officers need more powers to stamp out the sale of illicit tobacco. If a small shop is found to be persistently selling non-duty paid cigarettes they should be stopped from trading and feel the full force of the law.”