Fresh is calling for tougher penalties for people dealing in illicit tobacco as a national consultation looks at ways of tackling the black market.
Those who smuggle, distribute and sell illegal tobacco, which can end up in the hands of children on North East estates, could be hit by a fourfold increase in fines together with tough new civil penalties to deter sales.
National HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) tax gap figures show that the illicit market for cigarettes has fallen from 22 per cent in 2000/01 to 13 per cent in 2015/16 and for hand-rolling tobacco from 61 per cent to 32 per cent of the whole tobacco market.
The amount of tax lost to the illicit market has been driven down from £3.4billion a year to £2.4billion a year.
However, tobacco fraud remains a serious problem with HMRC estimating that in 2015/16, five billion illicit cigarettes and 3,200 tonnes of illicit hand-rolling tobacco were consumed in the UK.
Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh, which aims to tackle smoking-related illness, said: “We know the current penalties for selling illegal tobacco are not enough of a deterrent, which is a concern to both parents and retailers who abide by the law. This encourages unscrupulous sellers to take the risk and also deters people from giving information that could stop future sales.
“The illicit tobacco trade helps enable children to buy cigarettes, undermines public health and deprives schools and hospitals. There are also cases of sellers linked to loan sharking and drugs. The Government needs to send out a strong message this is not a victimless crime.”
She added that it should go further and a proper licensing scheme is the next step.
The consultation document is available here – https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/sanctions-to-tackle-tobacco-duty-evasion-and-other-excise-duty-evasion
A petition to the Government calling for licences for vendors has also been launched – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/187881