A track and trace programme aimed at stamping out illicit tobacco may not be introduced in time for its May 2019 launch date – giving counterfeiters free rein of the market.

The programme was built into EU legislation as an essential part of preventing smuggling and counterfeiting of cigarettes and rolling tobacco following the introduction of the EU Tobacco Products Directive 2.

We’d be really disappointed with this. There’s been enough time to sort it out and a delay will be even worse

All tobacco must be marked with a unique code and stamp, which ensures it is authentic and can be traced from the moment it leaves the factory all the way through to shops’ shelves.

A new EU report, issued just before Christmas, said it was unlikely to meet the May 2019 deadline for introduction, adding that “more time is needed to establish the integration of such systems”.

Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance spokesman Hitesh Pandya, of Toni’s News in Ramsgate, said: “We’d be really disappointed with this. There’s been enough time to sort it out and a delay will be even worse.

“With various changes going through, there’s going to be a lot more illicit tobacco trading from this year onwards. We need to protect the revenue stream for both retailers and HMRC. All hell is going to break loose and we need to have systems in place. Track and trace is an important deterrent and we need it as quickly as possible, not delayed.”

Imperial Tobacco’s coding & tracking engagement manager Nick Pearson said: “We are concerned it does not give the industry and its supply chain much time to implement the technical roll-out and meet the Commission’s May 2019 deadline.”