Tackling tobacco crime in Warwickshire – an illegal trade worth millions

Warwickshire Trading Standards is appealing to residents and businesses to help them tackle the organised criminal gangs that distribute and sell illegal tobacco by reporting them in confidence.

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. Such hiding places are difficult to detect without the aid of specialist tobacco sniffer dogs.

The cigarettes, along with the hand rolling tobacco, were seized 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.

Warwickshire County Council Trading Standards has carried out a number of raids against retail premises across the county, netting thousands of illegal cigarettes and packets of hand rolling tobacco worth tens of thousands of pounds.

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 licences suspended or revoked.

Warwickshire County Councillor Andy Crump, Portfolio Holder for Community Safety said:

“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.’’

The sale of illegal tobacco, which also damages legitimate businesses, has strong links to other forms of criminal activity including money laundering, people trafficking and even terrorism.

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.

Warwickshire Trading Standards is appealing to residents and businesses to help them tackle the organised criminal gangs that distribute and sell illegal tobacco by reporting them in confidence on 0300 303 2636.

More information about the work of Warwickshire Trading Standards is available on the Warwickshire Website: https://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/tradingstandards