AN ILLEGAL racket in fake cigarettes is booming in Blackpool, The Gazette can reveal.
Smokers are turning to illegal batches in their droves as they look for a cheaper option than paying £7 a packet in shops.
One in four packets sold in the resort are now illegal – up from fewer than one in 10 just a year ago.
Traders today called for action after seeing vital boosts for their businesses – and tax revenues – go up in smoke.
Rod Bullough, director of Duckworth’s Vending Machines, on Clifton Road, Blackpool, said: “Every illegal packet affects us and the illegitimate trade in the Blackpool area has been going on for years now.
“Twenty five per cent is more than every major supermarket sells in our area and the illicit trade is the biggest sector for selling cigarettes in Blackpool.
“If we think that 25 per cent of all cigarettes are illicit, with no duty being paid, it’s 25 per cent of the VAT collection and a huge amount of money. With the hard times we are experiencing at the moment people are looking for the cheapest cigarettes they can buy.”
The figures, which were revealed by an Empty Discarded Pack survey carried out by MSIntelligence, showed the North West had a 23 per cent proportion of illegal sales, while the national figures stood at 26.4 per cent.
In Blackpool the figure was 24.32 - just under one in four. It was based on surveys carried out in the last quarter of 2012.
Mr Bullough added: “It has been affecting us for the last 10 years and the Government’s policy towards tobacco is the problem because they are inflating the price of cigarettes to create a grey market.
“Whenever a grey market is created there is always a member of the public there to sell from it.
“If the Government dropped the price of cigarettes it wouldn’t be worth people smuggling them.”
Smoking causes over 100,000 deaths every year in the UK and it is still estimated one in five Brits smoke.
The 2009 Health Act ended open display of tobacco products, mainly in supermarkets, from April last year and will come into force for all other shops from April 2015. Some of the resort’s newsagents claim the problem of illegal tobacco is set to get worse.
Stephen Eastwood, owner of Abbey News, on Abbey Road, South Shore, said: “This is wrong but I don’t think it’s going to go away.
“If the Government decides to follow Australia’s lead and go ahead with plain packaging it’s going to get worse.
“It will be hard to distinguish between a fake or legal packet and I don’t think there’s going to be a solution to the problem. People will always make counterfeit cigarettes and it’s going to get easier for people to do it.”
Vikash Sharma, manager of News and Booze, on Talbot Road, Blackpool, added: “Cigarettes cost so much money these days that everyone who comes in says they are too expensive.
“We can’t compete with the price of illicit cigarettes and we keep getting asked by customers why we can’t sell them cheaper.
“It’s frustrating and shouldn’t be allowed because it’s killing us.
“People are trying to make a living and this just makes it worse for us and puts a lot of pressure on us because we are being undermined.”