Tobacco giant accuses UK councils of inaction on illicit trade

Tobacco multinational JTI has said that at least nine councils in the UK carried out zero investigations and enforcement actions over a five-year period, allowing the trade in illegal or counterfeit tobacco to flourish.

The failure of the nine local authorities to act “will undoubtedly lead to increased sales of illegal tobacco, which is often linked to organised crime, a blight on local communities and contributing to the large tobacco tax gap,” according to JTI, which said it collated the data from freedom of information requests.

The councils are revealed as Calderdale, East Dunbartonshire, Isle of Anglesey County Council, Rochdale, Havering, Lambeth, City of London, Kingston upon Thames, and York.

At the other end of the spectrum, JTI says, are councils like Hull, which carried out 249 investigations and 53 prosecutions in that period, and Middlesbrough with 416 investigations and 15 prosecutions.

The poor enforcement record of some councils based on existing laws raises doubts about their ability and capacity to enforce a more complex generational ban as was recently unveiled by the UK government, according to Sarah Connor, communications director at JTI UK.

In October, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled a plan to phase out the sale of tobacco products by raising the legal age of smoking every year so that eventually nobody will be able to buy them, saying: “Smoking is unequivocally the single biggest preventable cause of death, disability and illness in our society.”

“Illegal tobacco is already a significant issue, and the generational ban has the potential to worsen this, by driving adult smokers to buy cigarettes from organised gangs,” said Connor.

Last month, a survey of 1,000 convenience retailers found two-thirds think that the plan to gradually ban tobacco products will lead to an increase in illicit trade.

Since 2018, £9.3bn in tax revenue has been lost to illicit trade, including £2.2bn in 2021-22, alone, according to HMRC figures. The latter amount could pay for more than 77,000 new police officers, says JTI, citing estimates by the Police Federation.

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