AN ICE cream van was raided for bootleg cigarettes as part of a countywide crackdown on the illegal tobacco trade.

Thousands of illegal cigarettes and hundreds of bottles wine have been seized during raids on shops across the county.

Approximately £21,660 worth of illicit product was seized by officers from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Sussex Police, Sussex Trading Standards and Immigration services during raids using sniffer dogs.

West Sussex County Council Trading Standards revealed they had carried out raids on five shops and the ice cream van in their war on the illegal traders.

Officers found cigarettes stacked on shelves in empty cereal boxes and hidden in secret compartments beneath the floor, behind an electrical socket and behind a false wall.

In total, 2,068 packets of cigarettes and almost 500 pouches of tobacco were seized - carrying the street value of £13,660.Testing showed some of the cigarettes were potentially dangerous as they did not self-extinguish.

Officers from trading standards, HMRC and the police raided 19 convenience stores in Eastbourne, Hastings and St Leonards on Sunday May 25.

More than 8,500 cigarettes, eight kilos of hand rolling tobacco, eight kilos of Shisha tobacco, two kilos of cigar wrappings, 150 crates of beer and 70 boxes of wine were all seized - Lionel Barnard, West Sussex County Council's cabinet member with responsibility for trading standards, said: “Offenders need to know that they will face consequences if they choose to deal in illegal tobacco.

“We're standing up for legitimate local traders whose businesses are being damaged by these shops and traders selling illicit tobacco cheaply and consumers who face increased risks from counterfeit goods which are not checked or regulated.”

HMRC spokeswoman Jennie Kendall said: “HMRC will not tolerate traders found dealing in illicit tobacco and alcohol. This illicit trade is at the expense of legitimate traders and UK taxpayers.

“We are keen to work closely with local businesses and communities in the fight against this type of crime and urge anyone who has information about the sale, storage or transport of illicit tobacco to call the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000.”

Rupert Simmons, East Sussex County Council lead member for economy, said: “Contrary to what some people may think, selling illegal cigarettes is not a victimless crime.

“It undermines the great efforts being made to protect people from the dangers of smoking, by offering tobacco at pocket money prices.

“People who sell these products make it easier for people to take up smoking and become addicted, while profits from illegal tobacco sales may help to fund organised crime.”

Anyone with information about the sale of illegal tobacco can report it to Trading Standards services or call Crimestoppers on 08454 04 05 06.