Newspaper Investigation Reveals That Counterfeit Cigarettes Are A Major Public Health Hazard

Editor’s Note:  The following article from a Liverpool (UK) newspaper highlights the extreme health hazards from counterfeit cigarettes due to their being contaminated by everything from rat droppings to insecticide.  The article’s note that  “almost a quarter of regular smokers admitted buying dodgy packs of cigarettes” makes clear that counterfeit cigarettes are a major public health hazard.

ECHO Investigation: Liverpool’s multi-million pound trade in illegal cigarettes from China

by Ben Rossington, Liverpool Echo

THE ECHO today lifts the lid on the black market trade that starts in China and ends up behind the counters of corner shops, pubs and newsagents across Liverpool.

Illegal cigarettes are flooding into the city as organised gangs look to make millions off the back of the UK’s sky-high tax policy.

Tax hikes have seen the recommended retail price for 20 cigarettes hit the £7 mark making Britain the second most expensive place in the world to smoke – behind only Ireland.

The soaring prices have seen people on a tight budget resort to buying under-the-counter packets – unaware of the massive added health risks they are exposing themselves to.

On top of the normal risks associated with smoking the cut-price packs and rolling tobacco pouches can be filled with plastic, sand, dust, dead insects and even rat droppings.

They look like many of the regular brands seen on display but have names like Camelot, Raquel Gold, Jin Ling and Gold Classic.

And they sell for £3 – £3.50, half the price of regular 20 packs making them an attractive proposition.

The tobacco industry estimates one in every five cigarettes smoked in Liverpool is illegal – either a counterfeit brand or packs smuggled in from abroad to avoid paying the taxes.

Fake cigarettes graphic

While a survey carried out by Liverpool Primary Care Trust revealed almost a quarter of regular smokers admitted buying dodgy packs of cigarettes..

Three years ago Liverpool’s Trading Standards team found “factories” set up in Kensington’s terraced streets packed with Chinese immigrants and controlled by Triad gangs working to package illegal cigarettes that would be peddled around local shops, pubs and markets with gangsters pressuring businesses to sell their wares.

Every lorryload that gets through the UK borders can bring in a profit of up to £1.5m.

As witnessed by the ECHO while shadowing a Trading Standards operation all it takes in some city newsagents is for someone to ask “got any cheap cigs?” and the dodgy brands and smuggled packets are brought out showing the widespread scale of the problem.

Last year around 160,000 illegal cigarettes and 45kg of rolling tobacco were seized in Liverpool by Trading Standards while Customs have found 10,000 in just the last couple of months.

Gary Baskott, manager of Liverpool Trading Standards Alcohol and Tobacco Unit, said: “The ATU are finding counterfeit and illicit tobacco for sale in unusual premises including butchers in Wavertree, a bedding shop, a wool shop and a furniture shop in Anfield and a fruit and veg shop.

“We all know smoking is dangerous. But smoking counterfeit tobacco is even more hazardous as you can never be sure what you are actually smoking.

“Counterfeit tobacco is processed in squalid conditions. The tobacco is smuggled into Britain along with the counterfeit packaging and the pouches of tobacco are filled by a man sat in a dirty flat.

“So as not to waste any of the tobacco at the end of the day he will sweep the floor and put this into the pouches – along with the swept up tobacco could be anything from human hair, dead insects to fingernail cuttings.”

A fake pouch of Golden Virginia tobacco independently analysed had 30 times the levels of lead – poisonous in high doses – found in a legitimate pouch. For a 20-a-day smoker the lead levels were the equivalent of smoking 600 cigarettes.

In counterfeit Marlboro Red the lead was 17 times what you would find in genuine cigarettes while all the counterfeit cigarettes tested in Liverpool in the last year also had much higher levels of deadly toxins such as arsenic and cadmium.

In 2010/11 nearly half the premises tested by the ATU sold cigarettes to an underage volunteer – with some selling individual cigarettes, known as “loosies”, as well.

The ATU also sent volunteers into pubs and bars to see if they were able to buy from vending machines.

In 14 premises the underage volunteer was able to buy cigarettes from the machine without being approached or stopped by staff. In the rest the only reason they failed was because the machine was switched off, empty or it took tokens which had to be bought behind the bar.

And the ATU investigated whenever they had a tip-off ice cream vans were selling ciggies to children. They checked 42 ice cream vans across the city but none of them sold cigarettes.

Martin Southgate, UK managing director of JTI which produces, among others, Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut and Camel, said: “Cigarettes are one of the world’s most commonly smuggled products and the consumer demand for cheap cigarettes creates a massive source of income for criminals.

“There are many factors that have created this situation but the principal one is the excessive tax policy of many governments.

“The UK’s high tobacco tax policy leads many smokers to seek an alternative source of supply which is readily provided by criminal organisations who also trade in a number of other illegal or stolen goods.

“Many people who would not consider being involved in criminal activity are drawn into this environment as the availability of cheap cigarettes encourages people to break the law.”

Graham Forbes, HMRC Special Investigations Manager, said: “We have active and effective teams of officers operating across the North West to disrupt this illicit trade which has a devastating impact on legitimate retailers having to compete against these black market traders.

“Our officers have seized illicit cigarettes and alcohol in pubs, social clubs, off-licences, markets, tobacconists, newsagents, confectioners, as well as in some very unlikely locations such as farms, garden centres, fast food outlets including mobile burger vans and on one occasion even from the boot of a taxi cab.

“In recent months we have seized nearly 10,000 illegal cigarettes from local shops and traders in Merseyside, including three seizures from hairdressers.

“These outlets are helping to fund organised crime gangs in the UK and internationally and the illegal sales involve tax evasion on many levels.”

Dr Paula Grey, Director of Public Health for Liverpool, said: “The availability of illicit and counterfeit tobacco is not just about tax evasion. Cheap tobacco makes it easier to continue smoking and undermines quit attempts. It also encourages young people to take up smoking as its low cost makes smoking more affordable.

“This year’s Liverpool Tobacco Control survey shows that 23% of smokers in the city have bought cheap cigarettes or tobacco that may be smuggled or counterfeit – with 19% of smokers saying that they have done this more than once.

“This is likely to be an underestimate as the awareness of this issue is high within the city so some respondents may have been reluctant to answer this question.”

Anyone with information on cheap or duty free cigarettes can contact the Customs hotline on 0800 59 5000 or email customs.hotline@hmrc.gsi.gov.uk

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