Research reveals nearly half of UK are aware of illicit tobacco and vape sales

Illicit tobacco and vapes sold on the black market linked to organised crime are causing huge risk to communities.

According to new research by JTI (Japan Tobacco International), nearly half the UK is currently aware of stores illegally selling illicit tobacco (47%) and vapes (43%).

The vast majority (72%) of Brits believe the cost of living crisis is driving people who smoke or vape to seek out cheaper, illegal alternatives - in a vicious circle that drives organised crime, impacting local communities.

An additional JTI survey showed that over two thirds of convenience retailers (67%) also believe that the proposed generational tobacco ban would lead to an increase in illicit tobacco activity and there is concern that illegal products will become more prevalent.

The JTI research involved teams going out to areas where sales of illicit tobacco and vaping are a particular concern to conduct field research.

The results revealed the scale of illicit tobacco across the UK, with West Yorkshire standing out as an area badly impacted by illegal sales:


  • 5 stores provided a positive test purchase (serving illicit tobacco).
  • 26 stores did not sell to the undercover operative (did not sell illicit tobacco).
  • 3,500 Elux vapes on sale.
  • Non-UK duty paid Amber Leaf available for £18.00.
  • Rothmans cigarettes purchased for £7.00 per pack.


  • 15 stores provided a positive test purchase.
  • 34 did not sell to the undercover operative.
  • Lowest price Amber Leaf was £4.00 for counterfeit 50g.
  • Non-UK duty paid Amber Leaf available from £17.00 for 50g.
  • 10,000 puff count vapes purchased. Brand name Wolf Niro.

Bradford, Castleford and Keighley, West Yorkshire

  • 38 stores provided a positive test purchase.
  • Amber Leaf- cheapest price was £3.00 for 50G counterfeit.
  • Non-UK duty paid Amber Leaf 50G available for £18.00.
  • Cheapest Cigarettes purchased were Platinum and Richmond both at £3.50 per pack.
  • 10,000 puff count vapes were purchased- brand name Super smash 10,000.

Wakefield, West Yorkshire

  • 21 stores provided a positive test purchase.
  • Amber leaf - cheapest price was £4.00 for counterfeit.
  • Non-UK duty paid Amber Leaf 50G available for £17.00.
  • 10,000 puff count vapes purchased- Brand name Tito Pro Max.

Doncaster, South Yorkshire

  • 8 stores provided a positive test purchase.
  • Lowest price Amber Leaf was £4.00 for counterfeit.
  • Non-UK duty paid Amber Leaf available for £20.00.
  • Lowest priced cigarettes were CREDO purchased for £6.00.
  • 8,000 puff count vape purchased- Brand name Prime Bar.

Adults were also quizzed on the level of risk they believe sales of illegal tobacco and vapes pose to their local communities due to links with organised crime - and just under half (46%) described it as ‘high risk’ (29%) or ‘very high risk’ (17%).

Asked what measures should be taken to combat sales and distribution of illegal tobacco and vapes, the most popular answers were increased fines for those who sell them (59%), automatic removal of shop licenses (also 59%) and automatic shop closure (44%).

Sarah Connor, Director of Communications at JTI UK, comments: “The sale of illicit tobacco and vaping products is a big issue that’s having a huge negative impact on communities. With budgets tightening for many, and taxes on legal tobacco and vape products continuing to rise, it’s no surprise that more and more consumers are looking to illicit products as a cheaper alternative.

“Almost half the nation is aware of stores illegally selling illicit tobacco and vapes, and the fact that people believe this is presenting a risk to communities by links to organised crime is a worrying one.

“JTI believes in the freedom of adults to choose whether they want to smoke and that no one should smoke unless they understand the risks that come with it. A generational ban takes away the rights of adult consumers and will likely fan the flames of illicit tobacco activity across the UK.

“In the UK the illegal tobacco trade is thriving, with 11% of cigarettes and 35% of rolling tobacco smuggled into the UK in 2021/22 according to HMRC. The prohibition of legal products always has dangerous side effects and opens the door to criminal gangs to sell illegal products, as witnessed in South Africa in 2020, following a temporary ban on tobacco products.

"The proposed generational ban, in JTI’s view, would likely hand additional cash to the serious and organised crime groups that manufacture and sell illegal tobacco – amid fears it will not only exacerbate that tax loss of over £54 billion since 2000 but continue to blight local communities up and down the country.”

Don't be complicit in illicit

The company is now calling for stronger collaboration between the Government and the tobacco industry to prevent the sales of illicit tobacco and vapes.

Previous JTI research earlier this year revealed that over a quarter of retailers (28%) have seen a rise in customers openly asking for illicit tobacco and vape products – while a quarter of retailers (26%) said their store has been negatively impacted due to the sale of illicit tobacco and vapes by other businesses in the community.

In their opinion, 76% of retailers said the main reason other retailers sold illicit tobacco or vape products was to boost sales, whilst retailers stated that customers were increasingly tempted to buy these illicit products because they were cheaper than their legal equivalents.

Despite these findings, an overwhelming 95% of retailers said that they had never reported a business to Trading Standards for selling illicit tobacco or vaping products.

Stricter penalties and fines, more frequent visits from Trading Standards and strengthening border controls to reduce the supply of illegal products into the UK, were the most-common responses from retailers in terms of support needed to help tackle the issue of illicit tobacco.

** Research conducted with 1,000 independent and symbol convenience retailers for JTI UK on behalf of Acorn Retail Promotions.