Millions of cheap, illegal cigarettes are flooding the market and undermining efforts to reduce smoking rates, councils have warned.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, is calling for courts to impose bigger fines for selling contraband tobacco, which it said cost the UK economy more than £2bn a year in unpaid duty.
Fake or counterfeit cigarettes are made to look like popular UK brands but typically have foreign health advisories without picture warnings on the packaging, while “non-duty paid”, or bootlegged cigarettes are UK brands usually brought into the country from abroad and sold illegally.
Last October 58-year-old Michael Wallace was jailed for 20 months after trading standards officers uncovered £33,000 worth of illegal tobacco and £22,000 in cash stuffed into wardrobes and under his bed.
A smaller percentage of St Helens residents smoke now than they did 20 years ago but rates remain higher than the UK average.
Simon Blackburn, chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “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.
"No cigarette is good for you, but fake cigarettes contain even higher levels of cancer-causing toxins than standard cigarettes, so people should think twice about buying them.
“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 and protect the health of young people.”