London’s Alternative Tobacco Trade


The UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) recently conducted a survey which revealed that the most reported counterfeit goods in the UK over the past year were tobacco and cigarettes.  A massive 86% of UK Trading Standards authorities stated that they had investigated tobacco and cigarette cases during this period. London and the surrounding areas are a particular hotspot for the illicit tobacco trade.

The scale of the issue

London’s illicit tobacco trade is big business. It has been estimated that the trade generates £100 million every year for those involved. With cigarette and tobacco prices rising year on year in the UK, many people are finding it difficult to afford to smoke. Smoking is highly addictive, and many find it extremely difficult to quit.

Some tobacco enthusiasts are looking to legal alternatives like snus, which is popular in Sweden and Norway and can be bought online with fast snus delivery. However, many are finding the cheap cigarettes in London appealing because they don’t see a viable alternative. Research suggests the illicit trade accounts for around 15% of all cigarettes smoked in London.

The problem

The UK is keen to stamp out the sale of illicit tobacco products because it leads to substantial revenue losses. Legal sales of tobacco and cigarettes carry hefty tax rates which bring in money for the government.

It is also argued that low priced tobacco products discourage some people from quitting. Whilst the health impacts of smoking are widely understood, it is claimed that counterfeit cigarettes could pose an additional risk. That is because they are not produced in line with regulations and may, therefore, contain harmful additives.

Experts also suggest that those involved in the illicit tobacco trade are often also involved with organised crime groups. It is claimed that the revenue from the trade could be being used to fund other forms of crime, including drug dealing, money laundering and possibly even people trafficking modern slavery and terrorism.

Local Authority Concerns

Local authorities in London have several concerns regarding the illicit tobacco trade in the city. Their main concerns include:

  • The local stop smoking services being potentially undermined by the trade
  • The possible links between the illegal tobacco trade and organised crime
  • Wide-scale availability of low -cost tobacco products being accessible to children
  • The trade brings crime into local communities


How to distinguish counterfeit tobacco products

Counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco can be easily distinguished when compared to products sold legitimately. Products sold legitimately must abide by specific laws and regulations relating to packaging and pricing. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Tobacco products being sold at a meagre cost (e.g. a pack of 20 cigarettes sold for between £3 and £7)
  • Packaging which is branded as opposed to the plain packaging required by law in the UK
  • Packaging with old-style health warnings, no health warnings or health warnings in a foreign language
  • Unusual brand names
  • Foreign brand names – often from Russia or the Far East
  • Substandard quality of cigarette or tobacco

Buying tobacco products from legitimate businesses can help to stamp out the illicit trade. Smokers should be wary of cigarettes and tobacco being offered at very low prices in London’s shops. Whilst it may save cash in the short term, it could cause problems to both the individual and broader society.