Black market tobacco and cigarettes on sale for as little as £3 a pack in Medway, investigation reveals
Black market cigarettes are being sold under the counter in Medway for as little as £3 a pack.
An investigation revealed the sale of counterfeit tobacco has become so widespread that more than half of cigarettes smoked in Gillingham are illegal.
Will O’Reilly, a former detective chief inspector with Scotland Yard, carried out research to glean intelligence on the extent of the problem in the town.
Cigarettes are being sold as cheaply as £3 a packet in Medway
He said: “It is the scourge of every community. What was most shocking in Medway itself was how cheap the cigarettes were.”
His test purchase work discovered Fest cigarettes on sale for just £3 and Palace and Jin Ling for £3.50.
“We found retailers had the products inside their own clothing and hidden all round the shops. They were under the counter, in the ceiling, in fridges and in the meat section.”
He also found how in some, people could only buy cigarettes by knowing a codeword, which they managed to pick up from people on the streets.
“You are told to go to the meat counter and ask for two bread rolls and this was the code term for two packets of illicit cigarettes.”
Half of all cigarettes sold in Gillingham are illegal
Mr O’Reilly, who has been conducting research on behalf of tobacco giant Philip Morris International, warned the trade in contraband cigarettes was the new “crime of choice” for organised gangs, with the potential for huge profits.
“What we are seeing is organised criminal groups who are historically linked to drugs, firearms, people smuggling, are turning away from those perhaps more riskier enterprises to smuggling cigarettes because the profit margins are great.”
He also warned those smoking illegal cigarettes to be aware of the health issues.
He said: “People don’t realise what they are smoking. All sorts of things have been found in them, including heavy levels of metal, human faeces, rat dropping, sawdust, grass and some of these with very high levels of toxin.
“It is the scourge of every community. What was most shocking in Medway itself was how cheap the cigarettes were" - Will O'Reilly
"Children are also being put in danger as some of these retailers and unscrupulous sellers are targeting children.”
Earlier this year a dog detective agency, police officers and Medway Council launched its first operation to catch people suspected of selling the contraband.
In total, 225 packets of suspected illegal tobacco, containing 4,500 cigarettes, were discovered.
One shopkeeper was allegedly caught hiding illegal cigarettes in Special K cereal boxes, while others were found in secret compartments, in the back of wall shelving and large fruit juice boxes.
It is estimated that smuggled cigarettes cost the taxpayer up to £3.6 billion in revenue a year, which equates to an extra £200 in tax for every family.
Meanwhile, in Gravesend, Kiran Patel, a director of four convenience stores in Kent, helped with test purchases in Gravesend.
Mr Patel worked with JTI, an international tobacco manufacturer, and found the illicit tobacco trade offered products at “very cheap” prices.
According to JTI, 50g of rolling tobacco was found on sale at £5 while smuggled European tobacco was on offer for £8.50. In the UK it costs about £16.
A pack of 20 cigarettes was bought for £3 – about half the price of a normal packet sold in stores in the UK.
Mr Patel said he was also concerned for small retailers when it comes to restricting the size of cigarettes sold.
He added: “Restricting the sale on smaller sizes – getting rid of the 10s and only selling tobacco at 40g packets – the way we look at it, it works both ways. Those trying to give up buy packs of 10, but if we can’t sell smaller sizes, they may go out and buy them from the illicit trade.
“It’s tobacco that isn’t pure. They mix it up with insects and it’s not pure.
“We are the gatekeepers of the community and make sure it isn’t sold to people under age; the illicit trade, they don’t care. The government and HMRC are losing revenue to the tune of £3 billion a year which could be spent elsewhere, such as on hospitals.”
He recently met Dartford MP Gareth Johnson, who said he was keen to strike a balance between retailers and those who wanted to smoke.
He said: “I think it’s important that we ensure that getting less people to smoke, less young people, that we have a balance between what is important for retailers and adults that want to smoke.
“Plain packaging could increase the number of counterfeit products and dangerous chemicals and thereby a greater damage to people’s health.”
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