A QUARTER of smokers in Wiltshire use illegal tobacco, one of the highest rates in the south west, according to the director of public health in the county.

Maggie Rae said the easy accessibility of cheap tobacco will drive youngsters towards smoking and possibly crime.

She said: “Illegal tobacco smuggled into Wiltshire by organised gangs puts young people and vulnerable adults most at risk by visiting ‘fag houses’ to buy their cheap tobacco.

“These people put themselves in risky situations with people who might also be selling illegal alcohol, drugs and stolen goods.

“By selling tobacco to children as young as 12 or 13, these criminals are creating an addiction that could last a lifetime, cost thousands of pounds and result in an early death, as one in two long-term smokers die as a result of using tobacco products.”

The council is now working in partnership with Trading Standards and Smokefree South West in order to stamp the problem out.

Smokefree South West has run a number of roadshow events across the county as part of the campaign to tackle illegal tobacco.

The number of incidents reported to the police involving illegal tobacco has risen by 87 per cent in recent years.

According to Will Hill of British American Tobacco it is a mistake to believe that the crime is victimless and many people suffer from the illicit trade.

He said: “The people who smuggle these cigarettes are very unsavoury characters and are involved in very serious crime.

“But it is not only that, the Government loses out in lost tax revenue and local retailers lose money.

“We in the tobacco industry take this very seriously and we are working very hard to ensure that we catch as many of these criminals as possible.”

Dave Mathews from the Tobacco Retailers Alliance, who represent the independent shops that sell tobacco, said that the sale of illegal tobacco has a huge impact on the local community.

He said: “Tobacco sales represent about 30 per cent of the sales that are made by small shops with much of the money spent remaining in the community, with the rise of illegal tobacco that is all under threat.”

Wiltshire Police has asked anyone with information on the sale of illegal tobacco contact them on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 where information can be left anonymously.