Counterfeit plain packaged cigarette packs are on sale in more than half of communities in the UK according the the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance.

A survey of 250 shopkeepers carried out to mark the anniversary of plain packaging legislation found that 58% felt the new type of illicit tobacco was on sale near their stores.

It also discovered that nearly two thirds felt there was more illicit or suspect tobacco sales since the law change last May. The retailer concerns are supported by new research by JTI, which found that £5bn was spent on illegal tobacco in the UK in 2017 – a figure that will cost legitimate tobacconists much more in lost sales.

New research by the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association found that one in four smokers said the legislation had made them more likely to buy illicit goods.

Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance spokesperson Suleman Khonat agreed. “Plain packaging has simply made it easier for criminals to introduce fake packs, taking away legitimate trade,” he said.

Speaking at an event in Parliament to mark the anniversary, JTI UK general manager and vice president Daniel Sciamma said: “As you would expect from such an aggressive illegal enterprise, this criminal trade is evolving very fast. You can see today how they have adopted to the introduction of plain packaging. We repeatedly said plain packaging would make their jobs easier and it has.”

JTI’s research shows £174m of illicit sales take place in Northern Ireland. Ian Paisley jnr, DUP MP for North Antrim in Northern Ireland, told Retail Express: “If they don’t stamp it out legitimate shops will close, illegal product will dominate the market and tobacco will be sold to people without any regulation.”

The politician called for more funding for HMRC and border security in order to tackle the issue.

Not only did plain packs harm legitimate tobacco retailers, the TMA claimed the legislation has failed in its objective of reducing smoking in the UK. It estimates that there will be 350,000 smokers in March 2018 than there are now, based on the Smoking Toolkit Study.

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