Cheap tobacco sold locally as "duty-free" during the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certainly illegal, Trading Standards Officers in Greater Manchester have warned.
The alert comes after a public campaign in Tameside 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 Tameside, the campaign generated 25 reports of illegal tobacco being sold between March and October 2020. Inspections have continued throughout the Covid pandemic and resulted in raids being carried out in October 2020 with Tobacco Detection Dogs from Wagtail and Greater Manchester Police. Large concealments were found within these businesses and seizures were made.
Cllr Allison Gwynne, Executive Member for Neighbourhoods, Community Safety and Environment, said: "Despite national and local lockdowns, illicit tobacco continues to plague our high streets. Legitimate businesses should not suffer as a result of this illegal activity which is linked to organised crime and encourages our children to become smokers. We want the public and businesses to know that it is business as usual for our Trading Standards Team and that action will be taken to combat this illegal activity in our Borough.
This video shows the type of concealments Tameside's Trading Standards Team are finding, showing the quantities involved and the elaborate ways to avoid detection: https://youtu.be/XfsLnDax7IA.
Kate Pike, Trading Standards North West Lead on Tobacco, said: "Recent reports of illegal tobacco show that smuggled and often fake products continue to be sold across Greater Manchester, during lockdown, when overseas travel is 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 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."
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, 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 keep-it-out.co.uk.