Lockdown reports and seizures expose illegal tobacco market

Cheap tobacco sold locally as “duty-free” during the Coronavirus pandemic is almost certainly illegal, enforcement officers in Greater Manchester have warned.

The alert comes after a public campaign led to a dramatic increase in reports of illegal sales which has enabled Trading Standards to make a number of seizures over recent months.

The Keep it Out campaign, which reveals the true cost of ‘cheap’ illegal tobacco in our neighbourhoods, including links to organised crime and the devastating impact smoking has on people’s health, is run by Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, in collaboration with Local Authority Trading Standards and enforcement partners from across the city region.

In Stockport, the campaign generated a 100% increase in reports of illegal tobacco being sold in the metropolitan borough over the past year. Across Greater Manchester over 300,000 illegal cigarettes and more than 100 kg of illegal hand rolling tobacco were seized in March to September 2020.

Alongside their warning, enforcement officers have issued a dramatic new video showing a raid of a Greater Manchester shop on 12 May 2020 where illegal tobacco was being sold ‘under the counter’. The footage shows enforcement officers gaining entry and discovering a large volume of illegal cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco hidden in a locked room that was connected to the counter via an adjacent secret hatch.

Kate Pike, Trading Standards North West Lead on Tobacco, said: “We visited this shop after receiving intelligence that illegal tobacco was being sold. We found illegal tobacco behind a locked door in a grubby stairwell. A sliding hatch went through to the shop, so illegal tobacco could be passed through to whoever was behind the counter. We found a staff house where lots of people were sleeping on the floor - this is the real human cost of ‘cheap’ cigarettes or tobacco. We are working with partners across Greater Manchester to drive down the illicit trade. If you know where illegal tobacco is for sale, please get in touch. We will take action wherever and whenever we find illegal tobacco being sold.”
Tobacco bought on the illegal market is more likely to be the result of organised criminal activity with links to human trafficking, the drugs trade and loan sharks - bringing crime into Greater Manchester communities and exploiting vulnerable people. Dealers will also sell to children, getting them hooked on smoking.

Andrea Crossfield, Making Smoking History Lead at the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership said: “The crackdown on illegal tobacco is part of Greater Manchester’s wider efforts to cut smoking rates and make smoking history for future generations. All tobacco kills, but illegal tobacco is getting kids hooked on a lethal addiction and cheaper prices undermine smokers’ quit attempts. Whether legal or illegal, all tobacco contains a toxic cocktail of chemicals which will kill one in two long term smokers. It’s not just about the impact on our health though, the illegal tobacco market is fuelled by organised crime and that’s why we’re raising awareness of the harm it brings to our neighbourhoods too, and encouraging people to report illegal sales.”

Cllr Sheila Bailey, Cabinet Member for Sustainable Stockport said: “Recent reports of illegal tobacco in Stockport show that smuggled and often fake products were continuing to be sold during lockdown when overseas travel was restricted. This shows that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not just duty free being sold on the illegal tobacco market. These highly addictive tobacco products are being sold by organised crime gangs with links to human trafficking, loan sharking and the drugs trade. We are working to keep illegal tobacco out of local businesses and our community.”

Overall, the size of the illicit tobacco market has reduced significantly in the last decade. UK government data shows the estimated amount of illegal cigarettes consumed has reduced by half from 5 billion illicit sticks in 2010 to 2.5 billion in 2019. But illegal tobacco still remains an issue because it gets children and young people hooked: half of all young smokers buy illegal tobacco, sometimes bringing them into contact with a wider criminal underworld.

The sale of illegal tobacco can be reported anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or at the Keep It Out website.