ILLEGAL cigarettes and rolling tobacco worth over £2.5million was seized by trading standards officers in the midlands during the past 12 months.
The haul included more than 5.5 million cigarettes and 645kg of hand rolling tobacco. The loss to the tax payer was estimated at over £2million.
The cigarettes and tobacco were often hidden in shop premises – from being stuffed inside cavity walls to even disguised within barbecue sets.
Specialist tobacco sniffer dogs were used to hunt out the stashes.
Some traders have already been prosecuted – through fines, suspended prison sentences and community orders – and some have also had their alcohol licences suspended or revoked for selling illegal tobacco products.
Warwickshire community safety spokesman Coun Howard Roberts said: “Far from being a victimless crime, the illegal tobacco trade is providing a cheap source of cigarettes for children and young people. Whilst all tobacco is harmful, the illegal tobacco market, and in particular the availability of cheap cigarettes, makes it easier for children to start smoking and harder for smokers to quit and remain smoke free.
“The loss to the tax payer means less money being spent on local communities, schools and the NHS.’’
Illegal tobacco products can usually be easily recognised. They will be cheap, often less than half the price of legitimate packets, and often have foreign writing on them.
Trading standards spokesman Bob Charnley urged people to play their part in bringing the culprits to justice.
He told The Observer: ‘‘More and more people over the past few years have decided enough is enough and are providing information to trading standards, to stop local criminals selling and distributing illegal tobacco.
“Combating illegal tobacco has become an increasing priority for trading standards. The illegal tobacco trade has strong links with crime and criminal gangs, including drug dealing, money laundering, people trafficking and even terrorism. Selling illegal tobacco is a crime.”
Anyone being offered cheap tobacco or any other types of illicit goods is urged to call the confidential fakes hotline on 0300 303 2636.