Illegal tobacco


The illegal tobacco trade is a problem that goes well beyond the billions of pounds lost to the public through unpaid duty.

  • Often tab houses sell illegal cigarettes to children, undermining efforts by legitimate shops to sell only to people over 18, and exposing them to all the well documented health risks associated with smoking.
  • Tab houses also cause a detrimental effect on the quality of life in neighbourhoods and create a knock on effect of criminal activity.
  • The term 'tab houses' refers to properties where cut price smuggled, or even counterfeit, cigarettes and pouches or hand rolled tobacco are sold from.

Illegal tobacco products are cigarettes or hand rolling tobacco (HRT) that have been either:

  • Smuggled: foreign brands illegally brought into the UK
  • Bootlegged (duty frees): foreign products brought into the UK in illegal quantities and / or resold in the UK
  • Counterfeit: fake packaging (cheap / low quality foreign cigarettes / HRT packed to look like premium UK brands)

The tell tale signs

  • Low price: if you are paying less than £3.50 for 20 cigarettes or under £7 for 50gm HRT chances are it's illegal tobacco
  • If you purchase tobacco from non traditional suppliers e.g. friends / colleagues at work or in pubs / clubs; car boot sales; tab houses etc
  • Foreign language on packs
  • No warnings on packs or the warnings are in a foreign language
  • Unfamiliar brands
  • Printing errors or poor spelling on packs
  • Complaints about taste

Changes to the law

These changes came into full effect on 20 May 2017 for legitimate tobacco products.

The changes cover a range of issues with the intention of cutting smoking prevalence rates and deterring take-up by young people.

  • Plain packs - all cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco must be sold in standardised plain packaging with bigger health warnings. The new packaging is described as being 'muddy green' - apparently research has shown it to be the world's ugliest colour
  • Pack sizes - 10 packs are banned, the minimum pack size of cigarettes will be 20. With changes to excise duty rates this means a minimum price of £8.82. The smallest hand rolling tobacco pack will be 30 grammes
  • Flavours - cigarettes and tobacco with flavourings are banned, apart from menthol which is permitted until 2020

The new rules come on top of existing tobacco control legislation, which Trading Standards officers already enforce, such as bans on advertising, sales of single cigarettes, sales to children under 18 and the display of tobacco products in shops.

Retailers had one year to sell through old stock with that period ending on 19 May 2017. Any retailers convicted of breaking the law could be fined, or even face imprisonment, or both. However prosecution is always the last resort for Trading Standards who will be working with businesses to ensure the new rules are complied with.

Why illegal tobacco is an issue

Far from being a victimless crime, the trade in illegal tobacco has serious consequences for health, crime and community cohesion.

Illegal tobacco traders can often be perceived as community 'Robin Hood' figures. It is important to raise awareness of the real dangers of illegal tobacco:

  • Illegal tobacco causes four times as many deaths as illegal drugs because it discourages smokers from quitting and encourages them to smoke more
  • Illegal tobacco is linked to low-level and large-scale organised crime, nationally and internationally illegal tobacco goes hand-in-hand with drugs and alcohol, child exploitation, money laundering and even terrorism
  • Illegal tobacco costs the taxpayer around £2bn per year

Illegal tobacco brings criminals into local communities and into contact with children. As well as being unregulated, illegal tobacco can often be bought at 'pocket money prices'. This not only attracts young smokers but allows those who may not otherwise afford to smoke, to maintain their habit and prevent their attempts to quit.

The sale of illegal tobacco is a criminal offence and the only people who benefit from this trade are the criminals who don't care about what is in the packets they sell. Since illegal tobacco remains part of the range of smuggled and contraband goods traded by criminal gangs it is vital that steady, persistent pressure continues to be applied.

If you are aware of the sale of illegal tobacco in your area, please report it using the methods above.

Report illegal tobacco

To report illegal tobacco: