15% of tobacco sold in Wales 'is illegal'
Almost half of smokers in Wales have been offered illegal tobacco to buy, a charity has found.
The first survey into the size of the illegal tobacco market in Wales by the anti-smoking charity Ash suggests it is larger than any English region.
It found 15% of all tobacco sold in Wales is illegal with the trade estimated to be worth millions.
The Welsh government has promised an extra £7,000 to councils for sniffer dogs to help combat the problem.
Some of the illegal tobacco was found to have higher levels of tar, contain dirt and even droppings.
Health Minister Mark Drakeford said the illegal trade undermined efforts to control smoking and help people quit.
Over 2,500 people from across the 22 Welsh local authorities were surveyed in the study, which also suggested around a quarter of Welsh smokers have bought illegal tobacco, with 60% of those purchasing them at least once a month.
Illegal cigarettes are considerably cheaper than normal cigarettes, with an average price of £4 for a pack of 20. A pack bought legally costs around £8.
Most illegal cigarettes - 52% according to the survey - are bought and sold in private homes although a significant proportion are sold under-the-counter in pubs, clubs or shops.
Ash Wales' chief executive Elen de Lacy told BBC Wales the survey's results were "extremely worrying".
"We know we have very high smoking rates amongst young children, and young people can access illegal tobacco very easily because it is cheap.
"If young people can access illegal tobacco at 12, 13, 14 years old - at that price it makes it very easy for them to start smoking," she said.
"The price also makes adult smokers less motivated to make an attempt to quit."
Hidden in printer
BBC Wales was recently given exclusive access to an operation led by trading standards that targeted the sale of illegal tobacco in the Cardiff area.
Illegal cigarettes were found hidden in a printer under the counter at one convenience store, and evidence of packaging was found at another.
Types of illegal cigarettes
- Bootleg tobacco - imported without duty being paid
- Counterfeit or fake cigarettes - not regulated - found to contain high levels of tar, dirt and even droppings
- "Illicit whites" - made in eastern Europe or Asia - not regulated - found to contain high levels of tar, dirt and even droppings
Source: Cardiff Trading Standards
It is estimated millions of pounds worth of illegal cigarettes are traded in Wales each year.
Last spring one of the largest ever hauls of illegal tobacco - worth more than £500,000 - was found in three Newport shops by trading standards officers in the city.
Sarah Smith, a group leader at Cardiff Trading Standards said: "We're finding large quantities, in just two days last year we found over 40,000 [packs of] cigarettes with a street value of £100,000."
A range of measures including a public awareness campaign should be introduced in Wales, according to ASH Wales, to help tackle the problem.
They argue a similar effort in the north east of England helped reduce illegal tobacco rates from 15% (the Welsh level) of tobacco products sold in 2009 to 9% in 2013.
Health Minister Mark Drakeford said: "Smoking is one of the leading causes of early death; and we are implementing a comprehensive range of measures to reduce the harm caused by tobacco. The trade in illegal tobacco is undermining our efforts to control tobacco use and to help people give up smoking."
"It is important that we support more people to quit smoking."