A MAJOR crackdown has been launched on peddlers of illegal tobacco in Blackpool.
Police and trading standards officers have raided homes and seized thousands of illegal cigarettes.
The latest came in Grange Park where two pensioners are suspected of being involved in a supply ring. Fears are growing contraband and counterfeit tobacco – often laced with toxic chemicals – is flooding into the town and ending up in the hands of smokers and children.
Tests on a shipment seized recently showed high levels of lead – up to six times higher than in normal tobacco.
The operation was mounted after Grange Park residents were sold packets of rancid smelling tobacco which caused sore throats and nausea.
The latest raid, at an address on Dinmore Avenue, netted 3,000 illegal cigarettes.
It is the second time the property and its residents – a 65-year-old man and his 66-year-old wife – have been visited by authorities.
Last September officers seized around 15,000 illegal cigarettes worth £7,000 and a further £2,500 cash.
Paul Crook, Blackpool Council’s public protection officer, said ‘fag houses’ and ‘community Robin Hoods’ were becoming more prevalent in the town.
He said: “You can find up to two or three houses on an estate selling counterfeit tobacco which has been imported from anywhere from Luxembourg, Belgium or Bulgaria.
“It’s a huge problem because these so-called community Robin Hoods are often the frontmen for a larger organisation which could be involved in serious crimes including drugs and sex trafficking.
“Not only that but we recently carried out test reports on a haul of tobacco which revealed levels of lead and cadmium up to six times higher than found in normal tobacco.”
Cadmium is used in metal solder and paint and, if inhaled, can quickly lead to respiratory and kidney problems which can be fatal.
It is thought one in two packets of hand rolled tobacco bought on Blackpool streets is illegal. It is being sold for around £6 a packet – around half the price of genuine products. Mr Crook added: “The action we are taking against these people is gaining momentum.
“Residents realise the damage that is being done to the town’s health and economy – particularly in instances where we have evidence of sales to children.”
The pensioners at the centre of Monday’s raid in Dinmore Avenue were cautioned and investigations are continuing.
Grange Park postmaster Peter Collins, who has seen the lethal trade first hand, said: “I’m petrified the lives of schoolchildren could be put at risk by cheap tobacco being sold on the streets.
“They will be attracted to the low cost and give no thought to the fact they could be smoking a substance laced with any number of toxic chemicals from rat droppings to battery acid.
“Blackpool is the perfect destination for criminals who can exploit the high levels of deprivation to make a profit, they don’t care about the health effects.
“I would urge anybody who is offered counterfeit tobacco to refuse and let the police know so we can keep the streets clean.”
Mr Collins, a former Blackpool councillor, was alerted to the problem when a man came into his Post Office to tell him tobacco he had bought for £6 had a rancid taste and had made him feel ill.
The counterfeit packs were sent off to Trading Standards for analysis.
Mr Collins added: “This tobacco made the man feel extremely ill, he was very embarrassed to have bought them.
“When we looked, it didn’t look right, the texture was too grainy, more like sawdust, and the smell was absolutely putrid.”
Grange Park residents spoke of their shock following the raid at Dinmore Avenue which recovered illegal tobacco branded as Capital.
Margaret Peters, 69, who has lived on the estate for more than 20 years said she was ‘disgusted’ to hear people’s lives were being put at risk.
She said: “I didn’t realise there was a problem, but it is so dangerous to be selling cigarettes so cheaply to young people, whether they are fake or not.”
Mark Ratcliffe, 16, said he often saw children with cigarettes on the estate.
He added: “It doesn’t surprise me at all, there is a lad who smokes on my street who looks about six.
“There is no wonder though if they can get it from a house rather than a shop where they would blatantly be asked for identification.”