More than 6 million illegal cigarettes and 350kg of hand rolling tobacco were seized last year by local authority Trading Standards services across the West Midlands region despite ingenious efforts to hide them.
Sophisticated concealments using electronic magnets controlled by a switch, hydraulic compartments in floors and cavity wall compartments were all used by traders acting illegally in an effort to avoid detection by Trading Standards.
The cigarettes, along with the hand rolling tobacco, were confiscated by officers during the 2018/2019 financial year and had an estimated street value of nearly £1.3 Million.
The goods were either counterfeit or smuggled to avoid tax, but would have been worth in excess of £3.3 Million if they had been genuine UK duty paid goods. The loss to the tax payer is in excess of £1.9 Million.
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 Staffordshire over 24,000 cigarettes with a retail value of £12,658 were seized over the last twelve months. An additional 9.8kg of hand rolling tobacco worth £2,947 was also seized. During the same period, 172 Intelligence Logs were recorded with 60 investigations leading to one arrest and two licence reviews.
Gill Heath, Cabinet Member responsible for Trading Standards at Staffordshire County Council said:
“Selling illegal tobacco is a serious crime and offenders need to know that our trading standards teams 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.
“Our anti-counterfeiting operation over the last 12 months has been a real success. Not only have the team taken thousands of pounds of illegal stock off the streets but money from the proceeds of crime has also been used to combat crime.”
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. Gill added:
“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 and it’s important that communities support efforts to crack down on illegal cigarettes. Anyone with any information should get in touch with the team.”
People with any information about illicit tobacco can contact Staffordshire’s Fight the Fakes hotline on 01785 330356.