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Special report: Eggs, parasites and excrement in fake cigarettes
As the cost of a packet of cigarettes continues to rocket, cheaper and illegal alternatives are flooding the market.
During one day of test purchasing in Brighton and Hove on October 10 last year The Argus found seven shops selling illegal tobacco and cigarettes.
They might leave consumers with less of a hole in their pockets, but the impact on people's health is potentially far more serious than the gruesome health messages warn on legal packets.
And startlingly the profits from bargain priced cigarettes and tobacco may fund terrorist organisations - including al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Non-UK duty paid tobacco (NUKDP) products are any goods that have not paid UK tax. They include cigarettes and loose leaf tobacco that is counterfeit, duty free or illicit white - brands manufactured legitimately in one country but smuggled into another country to provide consumers with cheap alternatives.
Industry experts have warned the illegal tobacco trade lures people into buying what seems like normal products at give-away prices - only to find the unregulated goods have been smuggled into the country by organised crime gangs.
Often the cheap cigarettes are made from the poorest and lowest quality ingredients in unregulated factories and have been found to contain toxins, rat droppings and dead insects.
Over the coming weeks this newspaper, together with industry giant Japan Tobacco International, is spearheading the Don't Be Tempted campaign to warn both shopkeepers and smokers about the dangers of illegal tobacco products.
The firm estimates that 21% of cigarettes and 47% of roll your own tobacco smoked in the UK in 2012 was NUKDP - costing HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) more than £2 billion a year in lost revenue.
Mark Yexley, media relations manager at Japan Tobacco International, said: “The impact of the illicit trade in tobacco on society is far reaching and members of the public, retailers, suppliers and the Government all have a role to play to combat the issue.
“Criminals who deal in illegal tobacco will sell to all-comers, including children. Japan Tobacco International fully supports any efforts to rid our streets of illegal tobacco and stop criminals infiltrating our communities.”
In Brighton and Hove last year investigators bought ten products from various shops and individuals across the city in just one day.
Although we cannot reveal the names of the shops or individuals without compromising Trading Standards investigations, all ten products were found to have non-English health warnings and were NUKDP.
The goods included three 20 packs of Benson and Hedges bought for £5.50 each, normally sold for about £9 each, a 50g pack of Golden Virginia for £9 as opposed to the standard £17 and a 20 pack of Palace Cigarettes - which have not been produced since 2011 - for just £3.50.
In total 11 stalls were either closed down or abandoned as officers seized 1,500 pouches of counterfeit tobacco worth £23,000.
And in 2012 raids on 33 retail premises in Brighton and Hove were raided in a two-day crime blitz which saw large quantities of illicit tobacco seized.
More than 2,600 smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes and 50 kilos of tobacco were found valued at more than £70,000.
Despite this, a spokeswoman from Brighton Trading Standards said there had been no convictions in recent years.
HMRC Sussex spokesman Bob Gaiger said across the UK in the last two years nearly 3.6 billion illicit cigarettes and more than 1,000 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco have been seized, resulting in 432 prosecutions.
He added: “HMRC estimates that tobacco fraud costs the Government around £2 billion a year - money that could be spent on public services.
“So a cheap smoke isn't victimless - it undermines the efforts of legitimate traders and can cost us all dear.”
Retailers convicted of selling NUKDP goods face criminal prosecutions with custodial sentences of up to seven years or fines of up to £5,000.
Additional sanctions following a successful prosecution can include confiscation of products under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, prohibition on the sale of tobacco products for up to six months and the removal of lottery terminals.
The penalties have been questioned as too lenient. Europol - the European Union's law enforcement agency - said parasites, insect eggs, excrement and fungi have been found in seized counterfeit cigarettes and contain higher levels of tar and nicotine than genuine products.
To maximise profits, illegal tobacco is sometimes produced with cheap equipment and material without regard for quality control.
But it is not just the Government, the taxpayer and the health of smokers which is bearing the brunt of the trade.
The United Nations Security Council's investigative body has found that millions of pounds in illicit tobacco revenues are reaching al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organisations around the world.
It also established that funds generated through illegal tobacco sales have helped to finance Congolese rebels who recruit child soldiers and have been responsible for atrocities in the African state.
The Argus and Japan Tobacco International will any NUKDP purchases bought in city shops to hand Brighton and Hove Trading Standards so officials can launch their own investigation.
A spokeswoman from Brighton and Hove City Council said: “Trading standards officers from Brighton and Hove City Council regularly inspect premises in the city for illicit cigarettes.
“We also carry out test purchases when we receive intelligence, and will seize examples of illicit tobacco. However, the quantities have always been small and we have dealt with offenders by way of warning letters, advice to the businesses and monitoring of premises.
“Where there are issues that come under the remit of partner agencies, such as Customs and Excise, we have passed the information to them for them to consider action and for intelligence purposes.
“Regarding the recent cases, we have spoken to the company which carried out the test purchases and, once we have received all the evidence from them, we will carry out an investigation.”
A spokesman from Sussex Police said: “Any licensed premises found selling illegal tobacco will be challenged by Trading Standards who will ask for a review of the premise licence under the Licensing Act 2003.
“We will support their review and also request revocation - but the powers to do this are a matter for the local authority.”
A spokeswoman from HMRC said the public and retailers play a vital role in the fight against tobacco fraud.
She said: “We urge people to come forward and let us know if they have information about the smuggling, sale, transport, or storage of illicit tobacco by calling the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000. You can also report suspicious trading, tax evasion or smuggling via our website to help us tackle organised crime.”
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