Special report: 200,000 illicit cigs seized in Lancashire last year

Trading Standards seized these suspected counterfeit cigarettes during a raid in Clifton Avenue, Blackpool
Trading Standards seized these suspected counterfeit cigarettes during a raid in Clifton Avenue, Blackpool
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Almost 200,000 ‘illicit’ cigarettes were seized by Trading Standards officers across Lancashire last year, almost five times the number confiscated six years ago.

And the number of people prosecuted for selling counterfeit and non-duty tobacco products has also rocketed, an investigation by The Gazette has found.

The price of cigarettes has almost doubled since smoking in public was banned ten years ago, from £5.33 to £9.91. Up to 88 per cent goes on excise duty and VAT, it was estimated.

It was also revealed how:

n 188,580 sticks of cigarettes were seized by the county council in 2016/17, up from 37,760 in 2012/13;

n 27 people were prosecuted, down from 35 over the same period, with Blackpool on course for its busiest year for prosecutions since 2007;

n Nobody in Lancashire has been caught by police for smoking in a car with children since it was outlawed two years ago; and

n Some authorities in the county have not issued any punishment for breaching the 2007 Smoke Free legislation.

Earlier this year, more than 100 tonnes of imported raw tobacco with a value of £17m was uncovered during a nationwide investigation that centred on Lancashire.

A Poland-based criminal network was using several sites in the north west and Essex to process raw tobacco into illegal products in an attempt to evade excise duty and VAT.

An illicit factory was found in Preston, while arrests and more seizures were carried out in Bury, Blackburn, and Halstead in Essex.

Coun Albert Atkinson, the deputy leader of Lancashire County Council and responsible for Trading Standards, said: “Combating illegal tobacco has become an increasing priority for Trading Standards in recent years, and we’ve secured a number of successful prosecutions following our own inspections, and intelligence received from members of the public.

“A survey carried out in 2015 by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute showed that, nationally, there had been a 26 per cent increase in people reporting illegal tobacco dealers to councils.

“Amounts of tobacco seized in Lancashire have increased year on year, despite seeing a rise in elaborate attempts on the part of traders to conceal products on the premises, or in the locality, to prevent detection.

“Illicit tobacco is linked to the funding of serious organised crime, and more and more people are coming to understand the threat it poses to our communities, and are prepared to report it.”

Although the cost of cigarettes has risen sharply in recent decades – from around £1.65 in 1990 to £9.91 now – ‘illicit’ cigarette sales has dropped slightly.

Government statistics show 13 per cent of all sales involved dodgy cigs, compared to around 15 per cent in 2006/07. The tax gap has also dropped from £1.8m to £1.6m in the same period, HMRC figures also showed.

The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association said 88 per cent of the price of the cheapest cigarettes on sale in the UK goes on excise duty and VAT.

A 2013 campaign by our sister title the Lancashire Post highlighted how smuggled cigarettes are typically sold for pocket money prices, making it affordable for younger people to take up the deadly habit. And retailers have previously raised concerns Facebook was notorious for sellers to trade it.

WHAT DO THE FIGURES SHOW?

Lancashire County Council said 12 people were prosecuted in 2011/12. That figure rose sharply to 35 the following year, and the number of prosecutions average that figure until last year, when it dropped slightly to 27.

The number of illicit cigarettes seized has risen year-on-year from 2012/13, when it was 37,760, to 188,580 last year. In the past five years, a total of 470,874 sticks of cigarettes have been confiscated.

Blackpool Council, a unitary authority, said there were 104 ‘formal actions or prosecutions’ from 2007, when the ban came in, to 2016.

The most in one year was 14, a figure record in both 2007 and 2013. The least was six in 2009. Last year, there were eight, and so far this year there have been seven.

ARE THERE ANY STAND-OUT CASES?

Last year, a shop owner and his manager were ordered to pay back £35,000 of ill-gotten gains after peddling hundreds of fake and imported cigarettes from their Blackpool store.

Mohammed Ali Anwar, then 42, and Mubarak Patel, then 31, pleaded guilty to counterfeit offences after being rumbled during two test purchases by Trading Standards officers at Day to Day Bargains on Central Drive.

Preston Crown Court heard how Anwar, of Manchester Road, Blackburn, had benefited to the tune of £31,000, with Patel, of Sandpiper Close, also Blackburn, taking home £4,000.

Some cigarettes had false trademarks, while others did not bear the correct health warning labels, the court was told.

In similar circumstances, Salim Balesaria, then 39, was found to have benefited by £45,000 after selling illicit tobacco from International Delicatessen on Dickson Road in 2014.

Balesaria, of Lammack Road, Blackburn, was given a 28-day suspended jail term after admitting three offences relating to the sale or possession of counterfeit tobacco and an offence of providing a false name.

A car licence check revealed his true name.

Balesaria was prosecuted in 2008 for selling counterfeit cigarettes at a different shop.

He also had two previous convictions for selling tobacco to children.

Across the county, Crown Retail Limited, which owned Crown Convenience Store on Lancashire Road North, Preston, and director Dilavar Patel were prosecuted after more than 500 illegal tobacco products were found stashed in crisp boxes.

Patel, then 52, of Fulwood Hall Lane, said he had bought cigarettes – confirmed to be fake – because they were ‘cheap’ and he ‘intended to give them to friends’, magistrates were told in 2015.

All 525 packs of tobacco were not labelled properly either.

And shopkeeper Idris Patel, then 41, of Lex Street in Preston, was caught out during two test purchases at Pound Plus on New Hall Lane by the county council’s Trading Standards team.

Magistrates heard illicit products were seized in an inspection from a cubby hole and under the stairs, before an undercover volunteer was supplied with illegal cigarettes just five days later.

HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN FINED BY POLICE FOR SMOKING IN CARS WITH CHILDREN?

None, according to figures released under freedom of information laws.

“There have been zero people fined, prosecuted, or issued with a warning for breach of the smoking ban in cars while children under the age of 18 are present,” the force said.

The new law, introduced in October 2015, makes it illegal to spark up when in a vehicle with a child, even if it’s your own car, at the risk of a £50 fine.

A 28-year-old man stopped in Northumberland was widely reported to be the first taken to court for prosecution and fine last September.

But despite the legislation being hailed as ‘a landmark in protecting children from second hand smoke’, only three police forces in England and Wales reported incidents in the first seven months of the ban – and they were dealt with by way of warnings.

WHAT ABOUT FINES FOR 
SMOKING IN PUBLIC?

We submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to Lancashire’s local authorities, and have yet to hear back from them all.

Ribble Valley Council said there were ‘no recorded instances’ of fines, prosecutions, or warnings, from 2007/08 to last year.

Wyre Council said two fines were issued, both in 2014. There have been no prosecutions, while seven warning letters were sent, the last in 2014.

Preston Council said 54 fines were handed out from 2010/11 to ‘16/17, including six last year, with its health and safety team reglarly checking the law is being upheld during visits to local businesses.

It said it usually prosecutes in cases where the fine goes unpaid, where a fine has already been handed out, or where ‘premises are flagrantly breaching the law’.

In the last six years, Preston Council has prosecuted six businesses and one five taxi drivers. It also took action against a taxi driver for failing to display no smoking signs in his vehicle.

Preston taxi driver Ghafoor Akthar was ordered to pay £280 earlier this month after smoking a cigarette in his Hackney carriage.

Akthar, 60, of Cliffe Court, was seen by a council officer on North Road in the city and was challenged outside Ace Ringway’s office on Guild Row.

Preston Magistrates’ Court heard he had already been caught once before, in 2011, and paid a £50 fine. At the time, he was warned he faced prosecution if busted again.

Akthar pleaded guilty to smoking in a smoke-free place and was ordered to pay £50 fine, council costs of £200, and a victim surcharge of £30.

Coun Peter Moss, the council’s planning and regulation boss, said: “The law on not smoking in workplaces and vehicles applies equally to taxi drivers who carry members of the public.

“They have a greater responsibility in that they need to protect the public health of their passengers. The drivers and their passengers must also comply with smoke-free laws. Where they don’t, we will look to take action and prosecute offenders to safeguard people’s health.”