New figures reveal that, while fewer adult smokers are now buying illegal tobacco (20% in 2018 compared to 16% in 2021), more 14–15-year-old smokers say they’ve been offered illegal tobacco (up from 10% in 2018 to 25% in 2021). These offers mainly come from strangers, potentially exposing them to other harms in addition to those of smoking itself.
The figures are from a new survey by Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership which has tracked the size and scale of the illegal tobacco market following the introduction of its Making Smoking History strategy in 2018.
The latest Greater Manchester Illicit Tobacco Survey[i] data coincides with the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership running another phase of the Keep It Out campaign across the 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester in collaboration with Local Authority Trading Standards and enforcement partners, including the police, border force and customs.
The Keep It Out campaign is part of a wider multi-agency programme to reduce the supply and demand of illegal tobacco, highlight the true cost of these ‘cheap’ products and encourage people to report sales. This is because illegal tobacco is linked to organised crime, drugs, trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable people. It also enables underage kids to start smoking, as people who sell illegal tobacco will sell to kids, and, through cheaper prices, prevents smokers from quitting a habit that kills one in two who do it.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, the Keep It Out campaign generated nearly 400 reports of illegal tobacco being sold in Greater Manchester which led to raids, shops facing closure orders and huge fines. Over 2.3 million illegal cigarettes and more than 270kg of illegal hand rolling tobacco was seized by Trading Standards officers from across the region.
Overall, the size of the illicit tobacco market has reduced significantly in the last decade. UK government data shows the estimated amount of illegal cigarettes consumed has reduced by half from 5 billion illicit sticks in 2010 to 2.5 billion in 2019. But illegal tobacco still remains an issue because it gets children and young people hooked, sometimes bringing them into contact with a wider criminal underworld.
Baroness Beverley Hughes, Greater Manchester’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Fire, said:
“With more than half of those who buy illegal tobacco saying it allows them to smoke when they otherwise could not afford it, illegal tobacco continues to undermine our efforts to reduce smoking and smoking related inequalities. It also has other serious effects on our communities given its proven links to organised crime. The people who sell illegal tobacco are at the end of a long and profitable chain of crime, drugs and trafficking.
“We continue to take a very tough stance on illegal tobacco in Greater Manchester and in partnership with Trading Standards and Greater Manchester Police we are cracking down on sellers to help tackle criminality and anti-social behaviour. We have undertaken regular operations visiting retail premises, and other connected sites, resulting in a significant number of seizures of illegal tobacco products and closures of shop premises.”
Andrea Crossfield, Making Smoking History Lead at the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said:
“The crackdown on illegal tobacco is part of Greater Manchester’s wider efforts to cut smoking rates and make smoking history for future generations. While it is encouraging to see fewer adults trying and buying illegal tobacco, it is worrying to see so many young people being offered it.
“All tobacco kills, but people who sell illegal tobacco sell to kids, getting them hooked on a lethal addiction and cheaper prices undermine smokers’ quit attempts. Whether legal or illegal, all tobacco contains a toxic cocktail of chemicals which will kill one in two long term smokers. It’s not just about the impact on our health though, the illegal tobacco market is fuelled by organised crime groups and that’s why we’re raising awareness of the harm it brings to our neighbourhoods too, and encouraging people to report illegal sales to keep our kids safe and smoke-free.”
The sale of illegal tobacco can be reported anonymously to Crimestoppers 0800 555 111 or at keep-it-out.co.uk.
[i] Greater Manchester Illicit Tobacco Survey was carried out by NEMS. Fieldwork took place December 2020 to February 2021, 1558 interviews across GM including 769 smokers and 118 illicit buyers. Compared with identical survey in Summer 2018, 1520 interviews including 797 smokers and 144 illicit buyers.