Anti-Illicit Trade Survey 2020

London, Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The TMA’s (Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association) latest survey of smokers’ attitudes towards illicit tobacco shows it remains a significant problem across the UK.

12,000 adult smokers were asked questions to better understand their attitudes, awareness and understanding of illicit tobacco.

This year’s survey points to 5 key findings:

  • 7 out of 10 people still buy illicit tobacco.
  • 20% of smokers said that they only buy ‘branded’ cigarettes or ‘branded’ Roll Your Own tobacco, despite it being banned in the UK since 2016.
  • More than 75% of respondents aged between 18-24 have bought non-UK duty paid tobacco in the last year.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 of those who were aware of the sale of illicit tobacco in their area had reported it – which is 4% increase on last year’s survey results.
  • During the first ‘lockdown’, 16% of respondents bought illicit tobacco through social media or websites advertising cheap tobacco – compared to only 4% who purchased illicit tobacco from these sources before the ‘lockdown’.


The resilience of the illegal tobacco market remains a major problem impacting communities across the UK.

According to the most recent HMRC figures, since 2000 the Government has lost over £47 billion[1] in tax revenue, which is money that could have been invested in vital public services. But it is about so much more than just lost tax revenues.

The trade in illicit tobacco has a profoundly negative impact on small retailers, and especially independent retailers, with whom, according to the Association of Convenience Stores, tobacco products represent the biggest sales category resulting in nearly one-third of annual sales[2].

However, the brutal impact of illicit tobacco trade is not only felt by retailers, but by communities throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as organised criminals look at illicit tobacco as a lucrative revenue stream and front activity for other more unsavoury illegal activities including people trafficking, modern slavery or narcotics.

West Yorkshire Trading Standards paints an alarming picture of the growing reach of organised criminality: “We have an ongoing case which began with a significant seizure of cigarettes from an off licence. Further investigations revealed that the premises had over 70 people registered as living there in two years, and we have uncovered serious organised people trafficking evidence to suggest individuals are being housed illegally, transported around the county to work in premises owned by those involved, with sexual exploitation clearly taking place, and safeguarding issues”[3].

Rupert Lewis, Director of the TMA said: This year’s survey findings highlight both the widespread availability of illicit tobacco, but also the entrenched perception among many consumers that it is ‘acceptable’ to trade or buy illicit tobacco.

It remains a startling fact, that out of over 12,000 consumers questioned in the survey, 7 out of 10 (70%) said that they had bought illicit tobacco in the last twelve months.

While, 1 in 5 (20%) claimed that they only purchased ‘branded’ cigarettes or ‘branded’ Roll Your Own tobacco. This is especially concerning, as all ‘branded’ tobacco products have been banned in the UK since 2016. 

The TMA Anti-Illicit Trade Survey 2020 demonstrates that despite the Government’s enduring efforts the illegal tobacco market is not showing any signs that it is decline.

This means that ‘we’, meaning Government, law enforcement, industry and retail, must redouble our efforts and take the fight to those who bring about such misery through trading and supplying illicit tobacco. This is why the TMA wholly supports the Government’s proposals contained in the recent HMRC consultation on “Sanctions to tackle tobacco duty evasion”[4] to increase penalties on anyone who profits from supplying or selling illicit tobacco. 

We look forward to the outcome of the consultation, and as the UK ‘builds back better’ in its recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must ensure that tackling the illegal tobacco market remains a Government priority.

  1. Calculation from Measuring the tax gaps (2001-20)
  2. Association of Convenience Stores, Local Shop Report 2020
  3. “It still happens here: Fighting UK slavery in the 2020s”. The Centre for Social Justice, July 2020
  4. “Sanctions to tackle tobacco duty evasion” consultation. HMRC, December 2020


Notes to editors:

  • The TMA, is the trade association for the UK tobacco industry and represents American Tobacco UK Ltd., Imperial Tobacco Ltd., and Gallaher Ltd. (a member of the Japan Tobacco Group of companies).
  • The online survey was conducted by Mitchla Marketing Ltd in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland during autumn 2020.
  • Cigarette and hand rolling tobacco (HRT) accounted for £10.6 billion in government revenue in 2019-20, according to HMRC (in the most recent HMRC Tax Gap Estimates 2018-19, up to £1.9 billion of lost government revenue was caused by the consumption of illicit tobacco).
  • For further information, please contact the TMA on or 07885706422


To access the TMA Anti-Illicit Trade Survey 2020 one page summary, click here

To access the full TMA Anti-Illicit Trade Survey 2020, click here