A staggering 4,500,000 cigarettes were seized by Coventry Trading Standards last year.
Surprisingly still today, across the UK the trade of counterfeit and contraband tobacco is a thriving illicit market.
A report by KPMG covering the illicit market suggests that in the past few years the consumption of counterfeit tobacco has increased from 14.3 per cent to 17.8 per cent, the highest level since 2006.
This week, Coventry City Council has reported that Coventry Trading Standards seized a staggering 4,584,040 cigarettes last year, with a street value of more than £1.3 million.
While at face value this figure is impressive, the problem is far from solved.
Sophisticated concealments using electronic magnets, hydraulic compartments in floors and cavity wall compartments are increasingly being used by traders to avoid detection.
Traders are getting far more subtle in their methods of concealment and distribution, especially with social media in the digital age.
However, authorities are not at a loss for solutions. Specialist tobacco sniffer dogs are just one of the tools used to aid in the detection of hiding places.
As well, tough legislation that subjects all businesses caught to a criminal investigation helps to deter would-be commercial traders. Some traders over the past year 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.
Not only does counterfeit tobacco cost the taxpayer about £2.5 billion a year, according to HMRC, but it can be fatally damaging to smokers as they often contain pesticides and even arsenic.
Just as official cigarette smoking rates decline across the world, partly due to the restrictions of tobacco use by price, taxation, advertising and ability to even find places to smoke, smuggling has taken hold. The World Health Organisation claims that if the global illicit trade was eliminated, governments would gain $31 billion in revenue and 160,000 lives could be saved a year.
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 taxpayer 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 Central England Trading Standards Authorities 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.”
The government advises that 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 can report it by calling the Central England Trading Standards Authorities’ confidential fakes hotline on 0300 303 2636.