When people are asked about Britain’s illegal drug trade, most people think the biggest problem lies with substances such as cannabis or cocaine.
But there is another growing problem costing the treasury more than £2.1 billion a year – illicit cigarettes and tobacco.
Will O’Reilly, of WOR Consultancy Limited, is a former detective chief inspector for Scotland Yard, and now runs a consultancy firm with former police officers, who investigate businesses across the country that sell a number of fake tobacco-based substances and contraband.
Will and his team have been on the Sussex coast this week looking into a number of independent dealers and shops, purchasing tobacco undercover and passing the evidence on to Trading Standards.
Will said: “When I first left the police in 2009, I started getting involved with a project into illicit substances and I recognised this as a big issue. Even in those days, I saw a large number of goods that were part of illegal trading.
“With a lot of organised gangs, it is less effort for more money, and that is what they are out to do. There isn’t a massive amount here compared to other areas because this is an affluent region, but it does show you what is available and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Will explained there were three types of illicit tobacco products currently in circulation in the area.
According to him, these are fake cigarettes being sold with false labels and branding, contraband tobacco which is being smuggled from overseas without domestic duty paid, and illicit whites, which are cigarettes manufactured legitimately in one country, but are then smuggled overseas.
Will’s team have been sourcing a number of locations where illicit substances are sold for a cheaper price, and found a number of dealers in pubs, local newsagents and even in a high street shop, where cigarettes were being sold under the counter.
Lauren, whose real name cannot be revealed for security reasons, outlined her script for purchasing tobacco.
She said: “What we do is turn up to a town, and I scan the area, and ask where I can get cheap cigarettes and tobacco. So, for example, yesterday I was pointed to the same shop by about ten people.
“Sometimes they ask you why you’re in the area, and the story I use is I’m a relative of someone moving from one house to another. It’s not somewhere I’ve been before and I have to get back to my uncle to help him carry the stuff. He smokes tobacco, and I smoke cigarettes, so that’s why I’m looking for both at the same time.”
Matt, another team member, said: “There are quite a few shops in this area where we have been able to pick up stuff. It tends to be mainly packets of Marlboro, but there are some illicit whites as well.”
Rob, another senior member, said: “A lot of the trade comes from Eastern Europe. One of the staff members our guys approached was Lithuanian. They were asked if they knew anywhere locally where our guys could get cigarettes and, as a lot of people do when you ask casually, they said, ‘yes, my flat mate deals cigarettes, I will bring you some back tomorrow.’
A pack of Marlboro costs around £9 for a pack of 20 in most retailers, but contraband smuggled overseas can be as cheap as £5.
Rob spoke about the breakdown of costs, and said a sleeve of 10 packs of cigarettes smuggled from Eastern Europe would probably only cost around £25 in that country, but would be sold in the UK for around £80-£90.
On the black market, a sleeve goes for between £45-£50 which means the seller, who has paid European prices, doubles their money, while the buyer saves around £40.
The organisation also contacted MP for East Worthing and Shoreham Tim Loughton to accompany them on a number of purchases, so he could be made aware of the growing issue.
He said: “I am completely shocked at just how easy it is to pick up these illicit cigarettes in all these places without any questions asked.
“I will now be talking with the Home Select Committee, and what we need to do for Worthing and Shoreham is look at the source of these trades in Eastern European countries. How well are they working to tackle these trades at the source? What we have seen coming through is just the tip of the iceberg.”
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