Leeds: Illicit tobacco rates are ‘real problem’

BOOTLEG BLUES: The bottom packet is counterfeit.
BOOTLEG BLUES: The bottom packet is counterfeit.
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Smokers in Leeds are ignoring warnings to steer clear of black market tobacco, damaging their health, the economy, local businesses and funding criminals.

Consumer editor Sophie Hazan reports.

A staggering one in seven packs of tobacco and cigarettes consumed in Leeds has been smuggled or bootlegged, according to new research.

Fake packets of well-known brands such as Superkings cigarettes and Golden Virginia rolling tobacco are being bought, sold and smoked on the city’s streets.

A survey conducted in Leeds last Tuesday resulted in the collection of 12 samples of counterfeit tobacco, as part of research for JTi, owner of global brands such as Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut.

The evidence was bagged and handed to West Yorkshire Trading Standards, a JTi spokesman said afterwards.

The survey concluded that 15 per cent of all tobacco products consumed in the city were illicit smokes, smuggled through UK ports and airports.

In Yorkshire and the Humber, ‘fake fags’ account for 21.5 per cent of the market – up from 13.8 per cent for the same period last year – according to a survey on behalf of Philip Morris International.

Researchers examined discarded cigarette and tobacco packets collected from Leeds’s streets to see how many were counterfeit.

The results come as no surprise to Will O’Reilly, a former Scotland Yard Detective Chief who is looking at the issue on behalf of Philip Morris.

He has witnessed a sharp rise in illicit cigarettes in the UK, which are manufactured in illegal ‘fag houses’.

But the most frightening trend is an increasing demand for ‘cheap whites’ – brands manufactured in their millions directly for the black market – said a spokeswoman for HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

‘Jin Ling’, ‘Capital’ and ‘Richman’ are some of the better known names.

There is no confusing them with existing tobacco products, as they do not exist on the legal market.

Yet smokers are choosing to buy these illegal and unregulated goods, which according to analysis by HMRC, have been known to contain asbestos, rat droppings, human faeces, dead flies and mould.

And levels of tar and nicotine are not controlled.

The black market habit is damaging the economy, with HMRC estimating that up to £1.2b was lost in tax in 2011/12.

Michelle Potts, of HMRC, said: “It’s a real problem in Leeds. There are few areas in the country that we would call a hot spot, and Leeds is not one of them, but it is still a significant issue.”

The Tobacco Retailers Alliance has found that non-duty cigarettes are a real threat to shopkeepers, who are seeing a genuine drop in footfall as smokers buy fakes.

Ali Seedat, owner of Fountain Street Newsagents in Morley, Leeds, said: “I know for a fact that you can go into some of the pubs and buy cigarettes cheaper and that affects me.

“When our sales of tobacco go up you know that is because customers have not been able to get the counterfeits, and when it drops you know their friends have got a stash again.

“It’s all about footfall, and if they don’t come in for the tobacco then they don’t come in for the confectionary or other things.”

He added: “People know the health dangers caused by smoking, and they have a choice. They also have a choice where to buy their tobacco, and they shouldn’t buy counterfeits as this only funds criminals.”

Mr O’Reilly has been gathering intelligence of the illicit trade in cigarettes across the UK since November 2011.

He said: “After a number of years in decline, there has been a sharp rise in illicit cigarettes.

“That’s partly down to the economy – people can’t afford the real product – and it is easier for counterfeiters to copy the packets.”

Plans by the government to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes in a bid to encourage smokers to quit is also being criticised.

Tobacco firms argue the initiative will be undermined by counterfeiters, who will find it easier to copy and sell ‘fake’ cigarettes and rolling tobacco, which will also be more difficult to identify.

As they will be cheaper than the high street price, the saving will encourage people to keep on smoking, they say.

Mr O’Reilly, who agrees, said: “Plans for plain packaging are simply playing into the hands of organised criminals and counterfeiters because it will be so much easier to make copies.”

Tobacco firms also argue that high taxes on their products create demand for cheap counterfeits.

Ms Potts, of HMRC, said fakes are sold for around £5 per packet of 20, saving consumers, on average, just £2.

But in a tough economic climate, it has been enough to tempt people to buy them.

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