Undercover investigators uncovered hundreds of illegal cigarettes available to buy in pubs, shops and from houses on residential streets in the space of a few hours during an operation in Doncaster.
This comes as new figures from Doncaster Council reveal 121,520 illegal cigarettes and 25.75 kilograms of tobacco seized by Trading Standards officers since April.
That is the equivalent of 577 cigarettes and 1,226 grams of tobacco being seized every day.
We joined the undercover investigation team which spent around six hours over two days visiting places across the borough where illegal cigarettes and rolling tobacco was readily available.
They discovered 1,140 illegal cigarettes with packets of 20 being sold for as little as £2.50 - as well as 100g of rolling tobacco.
They found a wide range of brands being illegally sold, some smuggled from abroad to be sold at a cheaper price in the UK and counterfeit packets which were manufactured to look like legal brands.
Former Scotland Yard detective Will O’Reilly, who headed up the investigation, says the counterfeit cigarettes are the most dangerous of the ones discovered because they are manufactured without regulation and may contain illegal chemicals and items such as rat droppings.
During the investigation we visited one town centre pub, where investigator Claire* hoped to find the same man who had sold her packets of counterfeit cigarettes the day before.
On entering the pub she asked one of the locals for the ‘tobacco man’ and was pointed in the direction of a man sitting ‘holding court’ at the back of the pub with a number of friends in full view of staff at the bar.
She asked him for two packets of an illicit brand which he pulled out of a carrier bag stored under the table. The two packets which contained a total of 40 cigarettes cost £8.
By comparison, 40 Benson and Hedges cigarettes would normally be sold for £17,76.
She says that when she bought cigarettes from him 18 hours before his bag had been full with packets of different brands - meaning he had most likely sold hundreds in that time.
“It’s very brazen. It only took me asking one person to find him, and there are four more like him that I’ve found since yesterday who operate from town centre pubs in a similar way,” said Claire.
We visited a number of independent shops in Copley Road, Beckett Road and Queen’s Road where illegal cigarettes were sold over the counter. At one of the shops, Rob* asks for packets of a Polish brand and the shopkeeper produced them from his jeans pocket.
At another shop we were shown a selection of five different illicit brands kept on a tray below the till.
Rob said: “It’s often not too difficult to find them, they want to be selling them so they don’t keep them too hidden.”
However, a couple of the shops selling them did store the illegal cigarettes in store rooms.
None of the shops we went into refused to or denied selling illegal cigarettes.
After a small amount of online research the team were able to find a Polish website which advertised cartons of Polish cigarettes for sale from a residential property.
Following a short phone call to the number advertised on the website the team were given the address for a property in Balby.
When we arrive at the property the transaction is carried out on the doorstep, with me and another investigator, Maria, remaining on the pavement outside the house for the entirety of it.
Will says the fact that packets of 20 cigarettes can be bought for as little as £2.50 indicates that there is a ‘widespread’ illegal cigarette trade in Doncaster.
The former detective said: “What we’ve picked up over the last two days is just the tip of the iceberg, a snapshot of what the trade here is like.
“I’m in no doubt that we could have discovered thousands more if we’d been here for even a day or two more.”
Will added: “We’ve found illicit tobacco products very easily obtainable in Doncaster, all different types really with cigarettes produced in countries like Belarus completely illicitly sold here. .
“The ones with foreign writing on them will have been smuggled here with no tax paid. We’ve found illicit whites which have been manufactured just to be smuggled.
“We’re buying these for as little as £2.50 a packet on some of these and I would ask the public, anyone who has information on anyone selling these type of products to contact their local law enforcement.
“Please don’t buy them because they are funding organised crime.”
At the end of the investigation each packet is inspected, some using an app from HM Revenue and Customs which allows Mr O’Reilly to find where and when a packet of cigarettes has been manufactured within seconds simply by inputting its serial number.
Now the investigation has concluded in Doncaster the team’s findings will be compiled into a report and sent on back to their employers, a tobacco firm, and the HM Revenue and Customs.
The team has been travelling up and down the country highlighting the quantity of illegal cigarettes that are readily available across the UK.
Gill Gillies, Assistant Director Environment, said: “We have seized over 100,000 illegal or counterfeit cigarettes in the last six months as well as 25 kilograms of tobacco. This emphasises how seriously Doncaster
Council takes this problem, and stamping out the sale of illegal cigarettes and tobacco remains a significant challenge.
“Educating consumers not to buy these potentially harmful products is vital – that is why we make the risks clear by telling people that counterfeit cigarettes have been found to contain dangerous chemicals and even rat droppings.”
HM Revenue and Customs estimates that the illegal and illicit cigarette market costs the taxpayer over £2.4billion a year in lost revenue.
A HMRC spokesman said: “We continue to work with enforcement agencies to reduce the availability of illicit tobacco, which costs the UK around £2.4 billion a year in stolen revenue.
“In the last two years alone, more than 3.5 billion illicit cigarettes and over 599 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco have been seized; the seizure numbers are a powerful reminder that we take plenty of action here.
“Don’t let criminals profit by undermining legitimate retailers. Anyone with information about the smuggling or illegal sale of tobacco can report it by calling our 24-hour Hotline on 0800 59 5000.”