Government efforts to drive down smoking rates in the name of public health are being undermined by the rising illicit tobacco trade.

This startling admission came from officials from the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) following the launch of its 2014 Tobacco Control Survey. The survey revealed that 91% of responding councils had taken action to tackle illicit tobacco, compared with 88% that had invested in preventing underage sales.

It is the first time illicit tobacco has been the lead concern for local authorities.

Jane MacGregor, who co-wrote the report and provides policy advice and guidance on tobacco to trading standards, said: “Illicit trade undermines legitimate businesses that are doing their best to comply with a range of regulations.

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“It undermines the efforts of public health in attempting to drive down smoking prevalence, and everything else we do in terms of reducing underage sales.”

The report also revealed that only 70% of all councils said they had a strategy in place in their region to tackle illicit tobacco.

The upsurge in the tobacco black market was confirmed by HMRC’s new Measuring Tax Gaps report, which claims that the illicit share of the tobacco market has increased during the past year, with illegal cigarettes claiming an estimated 14% share of the market and illegal hand-rolling tobacco holding a huge 43% share.

JTI blamed the increase on Government taxation for the rise, and said the continuation of the duty escalator “undermines businesses, revenue receipts and health policy”.

The TSI survey’s findings have been backed by a growing number of calls to Retail Express from independent retailers regarding our Smoke Them Out campaign.

“I think there is a higher percentage of illegal tobacco sales rather than underage,” said one retailer. “There’s a lot of illegal tobacco being sold around here in pubs and so on.”

Another retailer added: “Trading standards sometimes goes for the easy option in targeting underage sales as it is easier to deal with.”