UK officials have warned that many fake, illegal cigarettes flooding the country contain dangerous substances, including asbestos, arsenic, rat droppings, mold, dead flies, and human feces.
The illegal cigarette trade costs the UK over $2.6 billion annually in unpaid duty. Officials have used sniffer dogs to find stashes of illicit cigarettes, which have been found hidden in walls and floors of stores. More than a third of London smokers are purchasing illegal tobacco products. In many cases, consumers are entirely unaware that the goods are counterfeit.
According to the Local Government Association (LGA), fake cigarettes contain higher levels of cancer-causing toxins than standard cigarettes.
Trading Standards teams are targeting criminals creating fake cigarettes made to look like popular brands. Counterfeit cigarettes are designed to look like well-known UK brands, but they typically contain foreign health advisories and no picture warnings on the packages.
The problem is the illegal cigarette trade isn’t unique to the UK. According to KPMG’s Project Eros, 15.6% of cigarettes consumed in the Americas are illegal. That equates to about 40 billion illicit cigarettes. Governments in the region are losing approximately $4.6 billion in tax revenue each year due to the illicit tobacco trade. Illegal cigarettes can also be used to launder dirty money and fuel organized crime.
But the illegal tobacco trade also hurts countries in other ways, particularly with healthcare costs. Asbestos-laced cigarettes, like those found in the UK, may further increase the already-high rates of mesothelioma in the country.
Tests have shown counterfeit cigarettes from China have up to 80% more nicotine and emit 130% more carbon monoxide. Most illegal cigarettes come from Asia, where production has skyrocketed over the last decade. Underground factories produce 400 billion cigarettes annually, sold in cities around the world.