Millions of fake cigarettes are entering the UK and undermining efforts to cut smoking, councils have warned.
Herefordshire, Lincolnshire and Durham county councils in 2018 found illegal stashes of cigarettes behind shop walls, in sweet boxes and toilets.
Fake or “bootlegged” tobacco products are sold on the black market to avoid paying duty, the Local Government Association (LGA) said.
The illegal trade diverts £2.1bn a year in tax from HM Revenue and Customs.
In one case, Peterborough man Karwan Salim Ahamed was sentenced last month after using fake Facebook profiles to sell illegal cigarettes on the social media site’s “Lincolnshire + Boston + Spalding + Skegness + Sleaford + Kirton + Heckington etc” group.
Mr Ahamed was ordered to do 200 hours community service and pay £5,000 in costs.
The LGA, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, is calling on the government to increase fines and penalties for those found guilty of trading in fake or tax-free cigarettes and tobacco.
In another sentencing in Durham Crown Court last week, a 72-year-old man was ordered to pay a £35,000 fine after he tried to sell one box of 20 Brass cigarettes for £3.50 in a sting operation. He was caught with more than 100,000 illegal cigarettes.
In a separate case in Herefordshire, about 81,000 illegal cigarettes were seized from three shops in December. Officers uncovered remote controlled hydraulic hiding places, full of illegal tobacco, in the walls and floors of the shops.
Trading standards officers have previously found illegal hauls hidden in toilet cisterns, in boxes of sweets, behind extractor fans and in ceiling lights.
Signs of a fake
Fake or counterfeit cigarettes are made to look like well-known UK brands, but typically have foreign health advisories without picture warnings on the packaging.
“Non-duty paid” or bootlegged cigarettes are UK brands usually brought into the country from abroad and sold illegally.
Cigarettes and tobacco bought at duty-free shops are for personal use only.
Simon Blackburn, chairman of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “The sale of cheap, illegal tobacco by rogue traders in shops, private homes and through social media is funding organised criminal gangs and damaging legitimate traders, as well as making it easier for young people to get hooked on smoking, which undermines councils’ efforts to help people quit.
“No cigarette is good for you, but fake cigarettes contain even higher levels of cancer-causing toxins than standard cigarettes, so people should think twice about buying them.”