News item

Boroughs join forces to fight illicit tobacco trade

A picture of cigarettes

 Boroughs across South East London plan to curb the sale of illicit tobacco after a recent report found that 114 million illicit cigarettes with a street value of over £22million are sold annually in the region by organised criminal gangs. 

The new campaign involving the police, fire service, community safety, health and trading standards teams from Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark will raise awareness of the health and fire risks associated with the illegal trade, as well as its links to other crimes. 

The survey, commissioned earlier in the year by the six South East London boroughs, surveyed over 1,700 local smokers about their tobacco purchasing habits. 

Key findings include: 


  • illicit tobacco represented around 15% of the tobacco consumed 



  • 40% of smokers indicated they had bought illicit tobacco in the last year which implies a very high degree of acceptance of the illicit trade 



  • 80% of smokers who bought illicit tobacco said they were known to or introduced to the seller implying that the market is largely covert 



  • more than 50% of the illicit tobacco being bought was believed to be counterfeit and posed a fire risk in people homes 



  • illicit cigarettes are manufactured for as little as 15p per pack of 20 cigarettes but sold in the UK for around £4 per pack or less (compared to legal cigarettes which cost between £6 and £8 per pack) 



  • sellers of illicit tobacco are selling to people too young to legally buy tobacco products (aged 18). 


Findings from the report are now being used to inform enforcement and health strategies in dealing with illicit tobacco. Southwark Council is leading on the campaign and is working with partner boroughs to create new specialist teams to carry out more visits to premises selling illicit tobacco. Working alongside this partnership will be the Metropolitan Police Service and local police forces in order to identify and target offenders and criminals linked to the illicit tobacco trade. London Fire Brigade will also work to raise awareness of the dangers of house fires caused by counterfeit cigarettes. 

Dr Gerald Power, author of the report “Illicit Tobacco in South East London”, said: “This illicit trade can sometimes be seen as a ‘robin hood’ type enterprise with a few locals smuggling a van load of cigarettes back for their friends from abroad. If this ever was true in the past, the reality now is very different. Criminal gangs are heavily involved in the trade and bring both illicit goods as well as drugs into the heart of our communities. 

“We believe the availability of cheap illicit tobacco is also a significant factor in recruiting young smokers. Of the young people we talked to, 40% aged between 14-17 years old indicated they had bought these products. Illegal traders don’t respect legal age restrictions.” 

Councillor Richard Livingstone, Cabinet Member for Finance, Resources and Community Safety at Southwark Council, said: “The sale of illicit tobacco can no longer go ignored. It’s time that we speak openly about the damaging effects the illegal trade has on our local communities and honest business owners. With the support of the five other local councils we hope to raise awareness about the grave dangers involved in its consumption and the criminal activities it is associated with.” 

Danny Ruta, Director of Public Health in Lewisham, said: “The availability of cheap illicit tobacco is likely to be a major factor in recruiting young smokers and keeping people smoking in poorer communities. It has the clear potential to undermine the hard work that is done every year to discourage people from smoking.” 

Hazel Cheeseman, Special Projects Advisor at Action on Smoking & Health (ASH) commended the move, stating: "ASH welcomes the cross-borough, multi-agency approach to tackling illicit tobacco. A key recommendation of the recent All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health inquiry into illicit tobacco was that more partnership working was needed between local authorities and among key partners. Without concerted action at local, regional and national level, illicit tobacco will continue to contribute to health inequalities and undermine the effectiveness of public health interventions." 

Speaking on the fire risks posed by the illicit cigarettes, London Fire Brigade’s Third Officer, Dave Brown, said: “Every cigarette made in the EU since November 2011 has a special design which means the cigarette, once lit, goes out if it is not actively smoked. These illicit cigarettes do not have this safety feature so they continue to burn after they’ve been disposed of and put people at greater risk. All smokers need to make sure their cigarettes are completely out before disposing of them and to never throw smouldering cigarettes or hot ash into rubbish bins.” 



Communications Unit | Lewisham Council 

T: 020 8314 9001 | 

DATE: 22 October 2013