Councils fail to take action against shops selling illicit

Lincolnshire had the highest success rate, carrying out a total of 130 seizures in the past three years, and issuing 20 temporary closure orders

Nearly all (90%) county councils in England carried out less than 30 illicit tobacco raids on dodgy shops in the past three years, averaging just 10 a year.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by Better Retailing revealed 521 seizures took place by trading standards in the past three years, resulting in 74 temporary closure orders. A total of 2,723 reports of illegal tobacco sales at convenience stores were also recorded.

Thirty-one county councils provided submissions, with North Northamptonshire, Dorset, Somerset, Durham and Southampton unable to do so.

Hampshire was among one of the worst offenders, recording only one seizure over the three-year period. In 2020, it received just three reports of illicit tobacco being sold, followed by four in 2021 and 16 in 2022.

Similarly, Wiltshire recorded only one seizure in 2020 following four reports of illegal activity, but had none in the consecutive two years.

Cambridgeshire carried out just two seizures in three years, both taking place in 2020, after receiving 17 reports, with 10 in 2021 and 14 this year.

When asked why this number was so low, Wiltshire councillor Ian Blair-Pilling, cabinet member for public protection, said: “We robustly tackle this issue and have prosecuted several businesses for the sale of illegal tobacco. This sends a clear message that it is not tolerated in Wiltshire.

“It’s also worth noting that Wiltshire has a lower-than-average smoking rate, and complaints are also received about illegal tobacco being sold from private houses, not just retail premises.”

Elsewhere, Lincolnshire had the highest success rate in taking action, carrying out a total of 130 seizures in the past three years, and issuing 20 temporary closure orders.

Lincolnshire’s operational delivery manager, Emma Milligan, told Better Retailing the region “takes reports of illicit tobacco sales extremely seriously”.

She revealed an initiative known as ‘Operation Aladdin’ plays an important role in cracking down on illicit being sold in dodgy shops.

“We work directly with landlords of premises where illicit tobacco is found,” she said.

“They often aren’t aware their tenants are trading in illegal products and act swiftly to remove them from the premises, resulting in no further offending from that shop.”

Milligan added: “We act swiftly on public reports, including seeking closure orders on stores found to be trading in these products, immediately cutting off their trade while we seek further prosecutions through the courts.”

Lincolnshire was followed by Kent, which carried out 51 seizures after receiving 276 individual reports, and Nottinghamshire, which conducted 30 seizures and eight temporary closure orders from 33 reports.

However, figures from an ACS survey of trading standards officers across England and Wales this year revealed almost two thirds (61%) believe they don’t have sufficient funding to tackle the illicit vaping and tobacco market.

Last year, the Finance Act 2022 gave HMRC the ability to issue ‘on the spot’ fines of up to £10,000 and suspend tobacco licences in the event of wrongdoing, but despite promising to extend these powers to trading standards, no further action has yet been taken.

Tobacco supplier JTI stood in Parliament last month, calling for stronger powers and additional funding for trading standards. In response to the FOI analysis by Better Retailing, fiscal and regulatory affairs manager Ian Howell explained: “The investigation undertaken by Better Retailing further demonstrates why JTI’s recent call for some of HMRC’s powers to be extended to trading standards is so important.

“One of trading standards’ most vital functions is to ensure that all retailers on the UK’s high streets are operating legally, and we know the task they face regarding illegal tobacco is monumental.

“I’m sure every reader of Better Retailing knows of a store that has been raided, only to see them continue to trade illegally. Therefore, the ability of trading standards to issue an ‘on-the-spot’ fine of up to £10,000, instead of having to go through the time and expense of the court system, will act as a quicker punishment and a more effective deterrent.”

National Trading Standards went on to highlight the successes of Operation CeCe. Currently in its second-year, it has brought together the expertise of HMRC and trading standards, with the objective of reducing the availability of illegal tobacco by cutting off supplies at each level, from local retail right to the top of the criminal chain.

In it’s first year, 21m illegal cigarettes and nearly 5,800kg of hand-rolling tobacco – with a revenue value of £7.8m – were removed from local communities. HMRC statistics show the overall illicit cigarette market has reduced in the last decade, from 21% in 2001/01 to 9% in 2018/19.

National Trading Standards’ director, Wendy Martin said: “Detriment caused by illegal tobacco is widespread: it harms people’s public health, has strong links with organised crime, undermines trading standards and avoids significant tax payments that would bolster the public purse. The number of problems it causes explains why clamping down on the illicit tobacco trade has relied on individual organisations working together in partnership.

“That’s why an initiative known as Operation CeCe was developed in 2021 to bring together the expertise of HMRC and Trading Standards with the single objective of significantly reducing the availability of illegal tobacco by cutting off supplies at each level, from local retail right to the top of the criminal chain. In its first year of operation, 21 million illegal cigarettes and nearly 5800kg of hand-rolling tobacco – with a revenue value of £7.8m – were removed from local communities. We strongly encourage anyone who suspects tobacco is being sold illegally to report it anonymously to Crimestoppers by calling 0800 555 111.”

The Fed’s national president, Jason Birks, added: “We work hard to raise the profile of all the dangers associated with illicit tobacco and have repeatedly warned the government that it needs to act by allocating sufficient resources to tackle this scourge. “We are pleased some councils are taking action but urge others to step up, although we appreciate resource is an issue.”

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