The UK trade in illicit cigarettes and tobacco damages legitimate businesses, negatively impacts public health and reduces public funds from tobacco taxation.
Over the last twenty years, these counterfeit cigarette and tobacco operations have become ever more sophisticated. As a result, spotting fake cigarettes has become increasingly challenging.
What is illegal tobacco?
There are two main types of illegal cigarettes: Contraband (aka Smuggled) and Counterfeit (aka Fake).
This refers to genuine branded cigarettes that have been brought into the country by means of smuggling. This means that there is no duty paid on the tobacco – which is illegal. These are typically genuine products that were intended for sale in other countries, bought at a lower price and then sold at an increased price in the UK.
These are cigarettes that have been illegally manufactured to look like trademarked, branded cigarettes – but are then sold by individuals or parties that have no association with those brands or the trademark holders. Typically, tax is not paid on counterfeit, but this doesn’t necessarily result in savings for the consumer.
The risks of illegal tobacco
Most illegal, counterfeit cigarettes are produced in factories with sub-standard, unsanitary conditions - where there are no quality checks. When tested, counterfeit cigarettes are often found to contain disturbing ingredients.
Furthermore, all cigarettes sold legally within the EU are required to meet strict RIP (reduced ignition propensity) rules – and must come equipped with bands of fire-retardant paper at staggered points down the length of the cigarette, so that they self-extinguish if they are lit and not actively smoked. This is often not true of illegal cigarettes which may contain no fire-retardant safety features making them a greater fire risk.
How to spot fake cigarettes
Some packs of illicit cigarettes and tobacco are quite easy to spot.
Poor packaging, incorrect spelling, odd-looking logos or typefaces, and health warnings that are either missing or seem unusual could indicate that the cigarettes inside are fake.
Also, all major brands of cigarettes sold in the UK display a unique code at the base of the pack. Many batches of illicit cigarettes seized are found to display the same code on each pack.
Unfortunately, spotting the more sophisticated illegal cigarettes can be tricky for the consumer. Boxes and packs of fake cigarettes are now regularly presented in a way that is extremely convincing making it difficult to distinguish between fake cigarettes and the genuine articles.
As a general rule, if the cigarettes you buy are sold at a heavy discount from the price more widely available, then it increases the likelihood of you ending up with an illicit or counterfeit product.
The true cost of illicit tobacco
Consumers will often search for illicit, contraband or counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco, as they can be cheaper than the legitimate products. However, the true cost of buying these products may be much higher.
With a lack of quality assurance, there are significant health and safety risks to consumers. Furthermore, while it may seem like a victimless crime, the illegal tobacco trade is often linked to organised crime groups, attracted by high consumer demand and high margins1. These groups can also be involved in other types of organised crime such as people smuggling.