What I learned buying illicit tobacco

“If you want, you can have a go at making some purchases too.”

I had met the team who investigate the illicit trade on behalf of the tobacco industry in an east London car park just moments earlier, after receiving a phone call the previous day giving me details of the time and location of the evidence-gathering operation.

Minutes into the briefing and I’m facing the possibility that I could be thrust into the position of buying from these illegal traders myself. I’m a little doubtful, it has to be said.

The team who I meet are all experienced former law enforcers from the UK and eastern Europe – one tells me how she has had experience of buying heroin and worked in teams who have purchased firearms over the course of different cases during eight years with the police. I, on the other hand, have no experience of going undercover or asking under-the-counter items.

Surely they would suspect me? Surely it would take more than a few words to get a retailer to offer up cheap, illegal tobacco to a stranger? Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be so easy.Shockingly, it really was that easy. Where ever we went, “£5 Marlboro” or “cheap Benson & Hedges” was all you would need to say and a plentiful supply of counterfeit, smuggled or illicit white cigarettes would be handed over.

This wasn’t just retailers either – mobile phone shops and an ice cream stand handed investigators illicit tobacco during the course of their investigations and although we never met him, “Bill the baccy man” was a well-known figure in one pub we visited and we were told he switches between selling in the pub itself and outside a supermarket.

In the same supermarket’s car park the team organised an online delivery of smuggled tobacco through a London-based Lithuanian chatroom. There I was – the first person ever allowed to take part in this kind of online deal and not a member of the team – with zero Lithuanian and unable to understand the conversation. This, surely, must be a step too far?

No, the guy who arrived for the deal shook my hand, handed over a carton of Winston Classics and didn’t bat an eyelid.

This may be just one London borough, and I may have only been following the team for three hours, but this – they tell me – is the same experience they have up and down the country.

Knowing the facts and figures behind the illicit trade is one thing, seeing how brazenly these criminals are willing to sell their goods and how many of them there can be in a single community makes it clear just how massive a problem this is for our society.