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Undercover investigators highlight illicit tobacco trade in Gateshead

Homes, pubs, shops and businesses targeted by test purchasers in effort to raise awareness among public and law makers

Illegal cigarettes seized as part of a raid on Tyneside could contain human faeces, rat droppings or dead flies.

A team of undercover investigators uncovered “widespread” trade in illicit tobacco on a two-day visit to Gateshead.

Former Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly led the test purchase operation on Tuesday and Wednesday across the borough.

Since November 2011, Will has been conducting the research on behalf of Philip Morris International (PMI) – the global cigarette and tobacco company, which includes Marlboro among its products – to check on new counterfeits and to raise economic and health issues related to the black market.

His team of former police officers from around Europe, whose identities cannot be revealed, visit pubs, homes and a range of shops and businesses in an effort to make buys, before passing their information on to local Trading Standards teams.

In Gateshead, the team made successful buys at more than 20 locations across the two days, acquiring hundreds of cigarettes and tobacco pouches.

Will said: “Since I started I have carried out visits to 80 or 90 parliamentary constituencies around the country, and since the beginning of the year we have done about 12.

“The North East is no different from any other area in that there is widespread sales of illicit tobacco, but there seems to be a lot more sales advertised on social media sites and buyers going to people’s homes here.”

There are three types of illicit tobacco that the investigators look out for.

The first are ‘diverted products’ sold only in foreign countries at a cheaper price and then smuggled into the UK to be sold, while the second are counterfeit versions of familiar brands.

But it is the last group, known as ‘illicit whites’, which are cigarettes manufactured for the sole purpose of being smuggled into the UK and sold illegally but buyers have no idea what is in them. Tests have revealed traces of arsenic, rat droppings, human faeces, dead flies and more.

Will said: “We are able to buy these from car washes, pet shops, furniture warehouses, houses, pubs, corner shops and more. It is more prevalent is more deprived areas where there are more smokers but less disposable income.

“The HMRC say at least £2.1bn is lost to the treasury each year from the illicit market and the trade helps to fund organised crime and even terrorism. Health risks also include the fact that many of the illicit cigarettes lack fire retardant and have been found to be responsible for house fires.”

Peter Wright, Gateshead Council’s Environmental Health and Trading Standards Manager, said his officers’ work to tackle illegal tobacco is just part of overall efforts to reduce smoking.

He added: “Gateshead’s Trading Standards team regularly uses intelligence to target illegal tobacco suppliers. However, we don’t believe that counterfeit tobacco is a growing problem, particularly as HMRC has suggested that the smuggling of counterfeit tobacco products has declined in recent years.

“The bottom line is that all tobacco, whether counterfeit or not, will kill around 480 Gateshead residents this year alone and take up 42,000 GP appointments in the town.

“Around half of all long term smokers can expect to die as a result of their habit.”

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