Illegal tobacco sales on the rise

Annual survey finds staggering new figures in illegal trade

An illegal tobacco haul with bags filled with tobacco products that were not subject to UK tax.
The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association has found a rise in the illicit trade for tobacco products as four in every five consumers bought illegal tobacco in 2023.

ILLCIT tobacco sales have risen over the last year, according to the latest survey from the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA).

According to the latest poll of 12,000 smokers from the TMA, 80% of those surveyed bought tobacco in the last year that was not subject to UK tax making it an illegal purchase.

Rupert Lewis, director of the TMA, 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.”

Despite a decline in the overall number of smokers in the UK – which the TMA said has fallen down to just 12% of the UK population – the number of smokers who claim to have purchased non-UK duty paid tobacco has reached a new threshold.

Further to this, nearly three-quarters of respondents claimed they had seen an illegal 20-pack of cigarettes priced at between £3 and £6. This is a drastic drop compared to the average RRP which TMA said sits at £15.26.

The latest report highlights the scale of the illegal trade here in the UK with the TMA claiming that the continued excise hikes on tobacco products are now proving ineffective as the repeated tax rises coupled with the cost-of-living crisis have pushed consumers towards the illegal trade.

This is already coupled with the eye-watering rise in the illicit trade for vaping products, which the Association of Convenience Stores has said could inject £645million into the illegal channel.

The TMA has therefore argued the UK Government’s incoming generational ban on tobacco products will similarly prove ineffective and will only push more consumers towards the illegal trade.

Further to this, the organisation has said there has been a real concern over ‘age-related sales’ representing a prominent trigger for violence and abuse against retail staff and the phased generational ban will only fuel this further if implemented.

Lewis said: “Repeated increases in tobacco taxes and ongoing cost of living pressures are changing consumer behaviour and driving more smokers to buy illegal tobacco through criminal channels.

“This is especially alarming, given the Government’s intention to introduce a ‘phased generational ban’ on the purchase of all tobacco from 1 January 2027.

“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.”