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Illegal tobacco

There are three types of illegal tobacco:

  • smuggled, non-duty paid or bootlegged tobacco, which often includes packets with foreign language health warnings and no health warning pictures – they often cost between £5 – £7 for a pack of 20
  • counterfeit or fake tobacco, which looks like well-known tobacco brands but is manufactured illegally – these can be produced in the UK but more often are smuggled into the country and can cost from £5 per packet
  • ‘cheap whites’, which are foreign brands lawfully produced in one country but intended for smuggling into another – they are illegally sold in the UK and the most well known brand is Jin Lin, which can be as little as £3.50 per packet

It’s also illegal to sell single cigarettes, the cost of which is much lower than buying a full pack, making it harder for people to give up smoking and easier for children to start.

What’s wrong with illegal tobacco?

Illegal tobacco has all the harmful properties of legal tobacco, but is also completely unregulated, and often sold much cheaper than legal tobacco. Many smokers say that being able to buy it cheaply makes it harder for them to quit.

The sale of cheap or illegal tobacco also makes it easier for children and young people to start smoking and get hooked at a young age. This damages their health and brings them into contact with criminals.

Some illegal cigarettes are not fire safe – as, unlike legal cigarettes, they do not extinguish by themselves if left unattended, making them much more likely to cause a fire.

How do I recognise illegal tobacco?

The telltale signs of illegal tobacco include:

  • packets with no picture health warnings
  • packets with foreign language health warnings
  • stock kept out of sight in shops and away from the regular tobacco display cabinet
  • its low cost compared to normal cigarettes – for example, a pack of 20 illegal cigarettes can cost as little as £3.50 – £5
  • unusual or foreign brand names
  • availability in unusual locations, such as pubs, market stalls, ice cream or fast food vans, outside shops, private homes, and high footfall areas.
  • selling single cigarettes, often to children

How do I report it?

If you see illegal tobacco or single cigarettes being sold, report it by contacting us on 020 8356 4929 (choose option 2) or trading.standards@hackney.gov.uk.

You can also call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06 or report it on the London Trading Standards website:

Report illegal tobacco

What happens when a premises gets caught selling illegal tobacco or single cigarettes?

There are a number of outcomes when a premises gets caught selling illegal tobacco or ‘singles’. These include:

  • A review of the premises licence, which could lead to it being revoked
  • A formal caution and a requirement to do a training course
  • Prosecution, which could result in an unlimited fine or imprisonment.

What is the Council doing to stop the sale of illegal tobacco?

We work with London Trading Standards to target the sale of illegal tobacco, raiding shops suspected of selling it, carrying out test purchasing and inspections and working with the police and HMRC to seize it.

Every year, supported by London Councils, London Trading Standards, the Greater London Authority, Public Health England, Action on Smoking and Health and the London Association of Directors of Public Health we participate in the annual Illegal Tobacco Campaign, running roadshows highlighting the harms of illegal tobacco to residents. We use surveys with the public to assess knowledge, attitude and practice towards illegal tobacco to better understand the context in London.

Can I get help to stop smoking?

If you work, live or study in Hackney, you can get help to stop smoking from our Stop Smoking Service, which offers one to one behavioural support and medication in a range of locations across the borough.  These include GP practices, local pharmacies, Homerton Hospital, and a number of community locations.

You can also get information and  advice over the phone. For more information see Smokefree Hackney or call 0800 0469946 or email smokefreehackney@nhs.net.

Page updated on: 31 July 2019

Public Health