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Tobacco crime – a trade worth millions across the West Midlands

Published Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Coventry Trading Standards seized a staggering 4,584,040 cigarettes last year, with more than six million illegal cigarettes and 350kg of hand rolling tobacco seized in total by local authority Trading Standards services across the West Midlands region, despite ingenious efforts to hide them.

Pictured: a hiding spot used by the criminals.
Pictured: A hidden compartment in a car boot that was being used to hide illegal tobacco products.

Sophisticated concealments using electronic magnets controlled by a switch, hydraulic compartments in floors and cavity wall compartments were all used by traders acting illegally to avoid detection by Trading Standards. Such hiding places are difficult to detect without the aid of specialist tobacco sniffer dogs.

The cigarettes, along with the hand rolling tobacco, were confiscated by officers across the West Midlands during the 2018/2019 financial year and had an estimated street value of nearly £1.3million.

The goods were either counterfeit or smuggled to avoid tax but would have been worth in excess of £3.3million if they had been genuine UK duty paid goods. The loss to the tax payer through such trade is more than £1.9million.

All businesses caught with illegal cigarettes or tobacco are subject to criminal investigation, with some traders already being successfully prosecuted. Some have received custodial sentences, others, suspended prison sentences and community orders. Financial penalties have also been ordered, including Proceeds of Crime confiscations of over £150,000. In addition, some businesses have had Closure Orders granted against them and those who have an alcohol licence, have had their alcohol licenses suspended or revoked.

Cllr Christine Thomas, Chair of the Licensing and Regulatory Committee at Coventry City Council, said: “Our Trading Standards officers have worked tirelessly to take illicit tobacco off our streets. This has involved seizing tobacco from shops, van drivers and storage units.

“Far from being a victimless crime, the trade in illegal tobacco creates a cheap source for children and young people.

“Whilst all tobacco is harmful, the illegal tobacco market, and in particular the availability of cheap cigarettes, undermines government health policies aimed at reducing the cost to the NHS of treating diseases caused by smoking.

“The loss to the tax payer means less money being spent on local communities, schools and the NHS. It’s important that anyone suspicious of tobacco crime should get in touch.’’

Simon Wilkes, Chairman of CEnTSA said: ‘‘More and more people over the past few years are providing information to Trading Standards, to stop organised criminal gangs selling and distributing illegal tobacco. Combating illegal tobacco has become an increasing priority for local authority Trading Standards services across our region.

“The illegal tobacco trade has strong links to other criminal activity including drug dealing, money laundering, people trafficking and even terrorism. Selling illegal tobacco is a crime.

Mr Wilkes added, ‘‘Across the region we are seeing retailers becoming increasingly sophisticated in their approach to hiding the goods, adapting their methods in order to avoid detection. Some businesses had gone to great lengths to conceal the illegal tobacco. Our message remains strong:

“You may hide it, but we will find it.

“Selling illegal tobacco is a serious crime and offenders need to know that trading standards will take action not only to seize and destroy illegal products but also to seek to close down premises and to confiscate assets made from committing these crimes.”

Illegal tobacco products can usually be easily recognised. They will be very cheap, often less than half the price of legitimate packets, they will often have foreign writing on them and are often not in the required standardised packaging colour.

Anyone being offered cheap tobacco, or any other types of illicit goods should report it to Trading Standards by calling the CEnTSA’s confidential fakes hotline on 0300 303 2636.

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