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Major dent made in illegal tobacco market, reveals survey of over 4000 people

  • And world first programme in the North West is paying off says independent study by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies

TWO reports have revealed how a major programme in theNorth Westand North East has made a dent in the illegal tobacco market since 2009 and encouraged more organisations to tackle it.

The volume of illegal tobacco bought has gone down by 11% in theNorth West. This equates to nearly 60 million fewer illegal cigarettes and over £13m less duty and VAT evasion in the region.

The survey also found that the total amount of all tobacco consumed has fallen by 15% in theNorth West. 

The North of England Tackling Illegal Tobacco for Better Health Programme has resulted in less illegal tobacco being bought and sold on estates, fewer people turning a blind eye and more action aimed at bringing sellers to justice.

The Illicit Tobacco: North of England Study 2011 analysed the attitudes and buying patterns of 4111 people across the North of England, while the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies has presented positive findings on the impact so far the programme has made.

The programme was a world first when it was launched in 2009 to bring together the work of Tobacco Free Futures (formerly Smokefree North West), FRESH Smoke Free North East, the NHS, councils, HMRC and police to tackle the demand and supply of smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes across the North of England.

All cigarettes kill, but illegal tobacco helps to entice children to start smoking and adults to keep smoking because it is cheap and unregulated.

The programme launched the Get Some Answers campaign to encourage people not to buy and to protect their communities by informing on dealers.

A massive survey of over 4,111 people across the North of England including, first carried out in 2009 and repeated in 2011, has found that fewer people are buying illegal tobacco and those buying it are buying less:

  • The number of smokers buying illegal tobacco has fallen by 10%, down two percentage points from 20% to 18%.
  • The number of 16-34 year olds buying illegal tobacco has reduced by 5-6%, although 23% of 16-24 year old smokers say they still buy.
  • Nearly half (47%) of smokers who buy do so infrequently (one to three times a year), with only a quarter (24%) being regular buyers (weekly or more frequently).
  • Reasons given for not buying it include the foul taste and a lack of trust in sellers.
  • 14 and 15 year olds are twice as likely to buy “illicit” than adults.
  • Almost nine out of 10 of people agree that children and young people are at risk because they can buy easily and cheaply from unscrupulous dealers.
  • Over 6 out of 10 think that those who deal in illicit tobacco bring crime into local communities.
  • Awareness of illegal tobacco among non-smokers has increased from 54% to 69% in 2011.
  • Nearly three quarters (72%) of non-smokers and over half (53%) of smokers disagree with the statement ‘buying illegal tobacco is no big deal’.
  • Likelihood to report sellers has increased since 2009 amongst non-smokers and smokers, including those who admit to buying illegal tobacco.
  • Only 1% of people who think illegal tobacco is an important issue do so because they feel the trade ‘is at epidemic proportions around here’, contrary to tobacco industry claims.

The volume share of illicit tobacco sold by shops has increased from 6% up to 13% – suggesting a dishonest minority of traders are selling it to make a fast buck.

A separate report by the UK Centre for Tobacco Control studies, a network of nine universities specialising in public health research, has concluded the programme has been ‘an exemplar of partnership working’ which has raised the profile of illegal tobacco regionally and nationally in its importance.

It stated: “Despite the recession and significant disruption and cuts to staff and resources, all the available indicators show an increase in intelligence reports to hotlines and promising reductions in demand for illicit tobacco.” But it also concluded that the ongoing sustainability of the Programme is likely to rest on continued investment, as well as regional co-ordination.

Andrea Crossfield, Director of Tobacco Free Futures, said: “It’s really encouraging to know that there has been a significant drop in the illegal tobacco market two years into a recession, when more people are struggling financially.  It really shows the powerful impact of partnership work to tackle this trade. The results contradict tobacco industry scaremongering that illegal tobacco is a growing problem. It isn’t, but we need to keep up the momentum.

“I am delighted that the work by the programme and partners to tackle this trade has also been recognised by some of the country’s most renowned health academics”.

Pete Astley, Trading Standards North West, said: “Fewer people are prepared to turn a blind eye to illegal tobacco being sold on, and more people are prepared to share information in confidence. The programme has led to high profile enforcement activity where dealers are being stopped and locations selling illegal tobacco being closed down and prosecuted.  However, it is clear that we need to keep up the work to continue to tackle the problems caused by the illegal tobacco trade.”

Judith Kelly, HMRC Head of Tobacco Strategy, said: “The programme has shown that partnership working can be effective in directly targeting those involved in the illicit tobacco trade, and that it can also have a significant impact on public awareness of this crime and in changing attitudes to illicit tobacco. It is clear from the results of the survey that there is real public concern about illicit tobacco and HMRC will continue to work with other enforcement agencies and local authorities to punish more individuals involved in this illegal activity.”


1.         In 2011 a survey of 4,111 adults (aged 16 and over) and 358 14-15 year olds was undertaken across the North Westand North East regions. Results from this survey were compared against a comparable benchmark study undertaken by NEMS in 2009 for the partners in the North of England Tackling Illicit Tobacco for Better Health programme.

2.         Agencies involved in the development of the programme include regional public health organisations (including Tobacco Free Futures (formerly Smokefree North West), Fresh -Smokefree North East and Smokefree Yorkshire & the Humber), Trading Standards North West working with local authorities across the region, HM Revenue & Customs, local authorities and trading standards teams, the Association of Chief Police Officers, local police forces, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and the UK Border Agency.

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