How to smoke out overseas trail of a lethal black market
THEY are sold in pubs, workplaces and even under the counter at shops in Notts, according to trading standards officers.
But the trail of illegal cigarettes begins overseas – where tobacco is grown and smuggled into the UK, or where vast amounts of fake and UK non-duty paid pre-packed cigarettes are packed up and sent into Britain.
And with the price of a pack of 20 now above £7 in the UK, the full scale of the Notts black market for smokes is now emerging.
Colin Wragg, head of UK corporate and legal affairs for Imperial Tobacco, said in one case two years ago intelligence passed by the firm to the authorities in China led to the uncovering of an illegal tobacco factory – "literally underground".
Figures from the UK Border Agency also show over half a tonne, or 500kg, of hand rolling tobacco was seized by officers at East Midlands Airport throughout January – significantly more than previous months, which had averaged between 100-150 kilos.
Mr Wragg added: "People can think it's a victimless crime and feel they are just getting one back on the Government – the guy who buys it in the pub or at a car boot sale might think of it like that – but it hits local retailers hard.
"One small shop might lose £30,000 a year in turnover because of illicit tobacco."
Customs operations at the airport were run by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs until this role was merged into the UK Border Agency in 2008.
Although the agency is now in charge of airport checks, Customs officers help trading standards bring smugglers, sellers and manufacturers before court.
Spokeswoman Jennie Kendall said: "There was one particular case at East Midlands Airport around five years ago – a man who looked like he was the shape of a triangle. He was asked to remove his coat – he had this mass of cigarettes all Sellotaped underneath. There were thousands – his whole body was taped."
In the last three months of 2011 Imperial Tobacco research indicated that 15 per cent of cigarettes smoked in the Notts were illegal. It was 25 per cent during the last three months of 2012.
This means more than 780,000 illegal cigarettes are smoked every day in Notts – at a loss of £175,000 to the taxman.
Mr Wragg said: "The illegal market damages the community and if you are buying it you are just fuelling a criminal trade."
Trading standards manager Jane Bailey said the Nottingham campaign against "fag houses" – where fakes are made and sold and where smuggled cigarettes are stored – had now received 82 tip-offs and had led to 28 raids including the two seizures in the last week.
She said: "We will build on these cases to take more off the market.
"The operation is going well – we're getting a lot of information in. When we started the campaign we had very little but the work we are doing on every phone call people make is giving us pieces of the jigsaw puzzle."
Lisa Hoole, public health manager for NHS Nottingham City, hoped the crackdown would help it hit a target to cut the number of people smoking in Nottingham from 28 per cent to 20 per cent by 2020, adding: "We welcome any activity which tackles the availability of illegal tobacco."
Anyone with information about the sale or manufacture of illegal tobacco is asked to call Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.