Councils urge increased penalties for illegal tobacco sales

By agency reporter
January 28, 2019

Millions of cheap, illegal cigarettes are flooding the market with criminals selling them on Facebook and rogue traders using sophisticated secret places to store them, councils have warned.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, says the illegal tobacco trade is rife and undermining efforts to reduce smoking. It is calling for courts to impose bigger fines for selling illegal cigarettes which cost the UK economy more than £2 billion a year in unpaid duty.

Fake or counterfeit cigarettes are made to look like popular UK brands but typically have foreign health warnings and no picture health warnings, while non-duty paid, or bootlegged cigarettes, are UK brands usually brought into the country from abroad and sold illegally. Recent council hauls have seen sniffer dogs used to trace and remove bootlegged and counterfeit tobacco from the streets as they continue to crack down on the illegal trade.

In recent prosecutions illegal stashes of cigarettes have been found hidden in sophisticated hiding places in the walls and floors of shops and secret panels in cupboards. Trading standards officers have previously found illegal hauls hidden in toilet cisterns, in boxes of sweets, behind extractor fans and ceiling lights.

Many fake cigarettes contain even higher levels of toxic ingredients such as tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide than genuine brand-name cigarettes – which are still harmful to health. Fake cigarettes also pose a greater fire risk as they do not include designs that ensure that a lit cigarette will self-extinguish if not actively smoked. This reduces the chances of them starting a fire if they are left burning in an ashtray, are dropped or if the smoker falls asleep.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA's Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: "The sale of cheap, illegal tobacco by rogue traders in shops, private homes and through social media is funding organised criminal gangs and damaging legitimate traders, as well as making it easier for young people to get hooked on smoking, which undermines councils’ efforts to help people quit.

"No cigarette is good for you, but fake cigarettes contain even higher levels of cancer-causing toxins than standard cigarettes, so people should think twice about buying them. Counterfeit cigarettes also fail to extinguish themselves when left to burn, presenting a real danger to people. Bigger fines need to be imposed by the courts to deter the sale of illegal tobacco to help councils’ enforcement work against rogue traders, reduce crime in our communities and protect the health of children and young people.”

Consumers who are concerned about any tobacco product on sale are encouraged to report the matter to the Citizens Advice Consumer helpline on 08454 04 05 06.

Case studies

  • Herefordshire Council, working in partnership with West Mercia Police, recently used a three month emergency closure order on two premises that persistently sold illegal tobacco, despite previous court action and convictions. This was the first innovative use of the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 powers in West Mercia, and only a handful of police forces and local authorities across the country have used this new power. In December, six individuals were convicted of selling illegal tobacco with fines and costs so far totalling £6,560. In a separate targeted operation three weeks later, around 81,000 illegal cigarettes and a substantial amount of illegal hand rolling tobacco were seized from three shops. Officers uncovered remote controlled hydraulic hiding places, full of illegal tobacco, in the walls and floors of the targeted shops. The overall seizure from the three shops amounts to £32,000 of tobacco duty evasion.
  • A man who used fake Facebook profiles to sell counterfeit and illegal cigarettes online received a community order and was ordered to pay £5,000 in costs, following a prosecution by Lincolnshire County Council. In a separate investigation by the council, more than 5,000 illegal cigarettes were seized from two shops, including one where a hidden compartment had been built into a wall.
  • A shop in Gillingham was shut down after 5,000 illegal cigarettes and 3kg of tobacco were found hidden in kitchen cupboard panels and behind furniture following an investigation by Medway Council. The action followed repeated visits to the shop by officers, which were supported by specialist tobacco sniffer dogs.
  • A married couple in their sixties who sold illegal tobacco from their home have been ordered to pay more than £1,000, following a prosecution by Durham County Council. A total of 360 cigarettes and 850g of hand rolling tobacco which did not contain the required health warning was seized from the couple’s home. In a separate prosecution by the council, a man found in possession of 2,580 illegal cigarettes and 180 50gram pouches of counterfeit hand rolling tobacco was ordered to pay £531 in costs and received a six-month community order. If sold legitimately the cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco would fetch about £4,300.

* Local Government Association https://www.local.gov.uk/

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