A total of 250,000 illicit cigarettes and 56kg of illegal tobacco was seized over the last financial year by Staffordshire County Council’s trading standards team as part of a regional operation.
With a retail value of around £150,000, the cigarettes and tobacco were seized as a result of 472 tip-offs from the public via the council’s Fight the Fakes hotline.
Across the Central England Trading Standards Area (CEnTSA), local teams seized more than seven million illegal cigarettes and 478kg of hand rolling tobacco, worth in excess of £3m. Had the illegal goods gone on sale, the taxpayer would have been out of pocket by nearly £2m.
The amount of illicit tobacco products seized has increased year on year, with the number of cigarettes last year being almost 30% higher than the previous year.
The illegal goods were often well hidden. They were found in sophisticated concealments with electronic magnets controlled by a switch; hydraulic compartments in floors; behind a false back on a fridge; and in cavity wall spaces. These hiding places are difficult to detect without the aid of specialist tobacco sniffer dogs.
Staffordshire County Council’s communities leader Gill Heath said: “Last financial year was another successful one in terms of our trading standards team’s operation to tackle illicit tobacco sales. This has contributed to the wider efforts of trading standards teams across the region and their work will continue.
“Counterfeit tobacco is damaging to people’s health and can undermine smoking cessation efforts as it is usually sold at a cheaper price. In addition, illicit cigarettes can be a fire risk as they do not self-extinguish when left to burn as legitimate cigarettes do.
“Over the course of the year our Fight the Fakes line took over 470 calls, so it has been a real asset. We are always grateful to people who report suspected sales of illicit tobacco – the information they give really can make a difference.”
All offending businesses are subject to criminal investigation, and some traders have already been successfully prosecuted. Some have received financial penalties, while others were given suspended prison sentences and community orders.
In addition, some shops have had their alcohol licences suspended or revoked for dealing with illegal tobacco products.
Bob Charnley, chairman of CEnTSA, said: ‘‘More and more people over the past few years have decided enough is enough and are providing information to trading standards to stop local criminals selling and distributing illegal tobacco.
“Combating illegal tobacco has become an increasing priority for trading standards. The illegal tobacco trade has strong links with crime and criminal gangs, including drug dealing, money laundering, people trafficking and even terrorism. Selling illegal tobacco is a crime.”