The ways in which traders are hiding illegal tobacco are becoming more sophisticated.
From specially-made till counters with secret compartments to cigarettes coated in coffee to mask the smell, no measure seems too extreme for illegal traders attempting to hide a stash of counterfeit products.
However, unluckily for them, East Sussex Trading Standards has become wise to their ways and has introduced sophisticated measures of its own in a bid to crack down on the illegal tobacco trade.
Introducing Phoebe, YoYo and George, Trading Standards’ sniffer dogs with a nose for illegal tobacco.
“Originally, when we began getting reports of illegal tobacco, it was on shelves and visible to the naked eye, we didn’t have to search for it,” said Lee Ede, one of East Sussex County Council’s Trading Standards officers.
“Once we began our enforcement work and started to investigate the illegal tobacco trade, products began to be hidden.
“We’ve seen them hidden in holes in the walls, holes in floorboards, behind electric bleeper buttons, in plug sockets – places that require inspection because it is not possible for them to be seen with the naked eye.
“Wherever it is though, the dogs will always find it.
“Shopkeepers have tried to do all sorts to distract the dogs. We’ve seen illegal tobacco hidden in coffee, cheese and onion crisps, garlic – things with strong scents to try and mask the smell of the tobacco, but the dogs always find it.
“Having a tobacco dog is now part and parcel of our enforcement work on illegal tobacco.”
Trading Standards has been taking its tobacco-trained sniffer dogs on a tour of East Sussex in a bid to raise awareness of the illegal trade and encourage members of the public to report any suspicious activity.
“We are intelligence-led, so we act on information from the public and other agencies.
“When we get told of suspected illegal tobacco, we make sure we know the shop and know the area as part of the inspection. Sometimes it turns out to be negative, but sometimes it is a positive find.
“This tour has been extremely successful. We are giving people the message that illegal tobacco is bad. Whether it’s the fire service, HMRC, the police – whichever agency you speak to, they will tell you the problems with illegal tobacco.
“This is what we are saying to the public – if we work together, we can reduce the distribution and supply of illegal tobacco.”
The sniffer dogs take around six months to be trained to detect dodgy tobacco products and the process all starts with a classic favourite – an old tennis ball.
“It takes around six months to train a dog to become a tobacco dog. It starts with familiarisation with humans and then work on detection skills,” Ms Ede explains.
“We start by getting them to look for a tennis ball. Then, when they move on to finding tobacco, we give them a tennis ball as a reward. We can’t give them food as it would be unhealthy, so when they do find some tobacco, they get a tennis ball instead.
“When a dog finds some tobacco, it tells its trainer. That differs from dog to dog – some look down and stare to point out where the tobacco is.
“The contractor we use has 12 dogs, but not all are trained for tobacco. There’s Phoebe, who does tobacco and money, YoYo, who is a tobacco dog, and George who is just starting his familiarisation training.”
Trading Standards officers took the dogs to supermarkets and shopping centres in St Leonards, Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne on the week-long tour to highlight the dangers of illicit tobacco products.
Officers gave practical demonstrations of their work with the dogs and answered questions from the public.
Lucy Corrie, East Sussex County Council head of communities, said: “The trade in illegal tobacco puts people’s health in danger and risks encouraging more young people to smoke.
“It also has links with organised crime, so anyone buying cheap cigarettes or tobacco is putting money into the pockets of criminals.
“We hope these events will show people how we’re tackling this unscrupulous trade and give them a chance to see the fantastic work of the sniffer dogs, who are always very popular with the public.”
Trading Standards is just one arm of the attack against the illegal tobacco trade.
Sussex Police also has officers dedicated to clamping down on rogue traders.
Chris Neilson, intellectual property crime co-ordinator and business crime lead, said: “Sussex Police and East Sussex Trading Standards seek opportunities throughout the year to work together to tackle criminality that harms local communities.
“This has included the national week of action to counter rogue trading, jointly assessing and directly supporting vulnerable victims of mass marketing and other frauds and the sale of counterfeit goods, illicit tobacco and alcohol through joint intelligence-led operations.
“Sussex Police supports Trading Standards tackling the sale of illicit tobacco in East Sussex, as the illegal profits often fund other organised criminal activity and undermine legitimate local businesses.
“These products often contain dangerous substances hazardous to health, with seized products when analysed found to be contaminated with arsenic, sawdust and lead for example.
“Fake cigarettes have also been linked to house fires as they are not manufactured with the safety components found in genuine products which will put out a genuine unattended cigarette.”
Public Health Action defines illegal tobacco products as cigarettes, hand-rolling tobacco or niche products that have been smuggled, bootlegged or are counterfeit. They can usually be identified by being sold for cheaper prices – less than £3.50 for a pack of 20 – having foreign health warnings, no picture health warnings and an unusual taste and smell. Counterfeit tobacco products may also have unusual packaging such as spelling mistakes or incorrect logos and typefaces.
Public Health Action says the illegal tobacco trade was ‘substantial’ a decade ago but it has managed to halve it in those ten years. A statement on the Stop Illegal Tobacco website says: “The quantities of illegal tobacco on our streets have significantly reduced, but it is still out there and we all have to keep a watchful eye out to protect our children and our communities.”
Anyone with information about illegal tobacco sales is urged to report it by calling the illegal tobacco helpline on 0300 999 6 999 or online at www.stop-illegal-tobacco.co.uk.
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