Tackling the terror-funding illegal tobacco trade in your borough
PUBLISHED: 14:00 01 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:54 08 May 2015
I’m not sure what I expected when I volunteered to go undercover shopping for illegal tobacco with ex-police officers.
But it certainly wasn’t to be stood outside a Barking fast food restaurant watching a friendly Lithuanian pull cigarettes out of her child’s pram to make an exchange in broad daylight.
“Because the penalties amount to a slapped wrist and the mark-up’s so high, they just don’t care,” explained Will O’Reilly, who heads up the fight against illegal tobacco on behalf of Philip Morris. “It’s a booming industry – 500, 000, 000 more illegal cigarettes came to the UK last year.
“There are factories in the middle of eastern European forests pumping this stuff out through our docks and postal service.”
But, realising the world’s biggest tobacco manufacturer was bankrolling this investigation, I began to question his motives.
“Is this purely a commercial concern, or is this tobacco actually more harmful than the legal stuff?” I asked.
“There are three types of illegal cigarettes,” Will began. “The first is counterfeit, these are made to look like the real thing but aren’t subject to the same tests as our industry.
“The second, diverted product, is basically a way of getting proper cigarettes cheaper from abroad.”
Just when this was beginning to sound like a bland clampdown on competitors, he told me about the third.
“The third is ‘illicit whites’,” he said. “These are made purely for smuggling and funding organised crime.
“They fund the IRA, who send it over here and also sell it to their own people in the Catholic areas of Derry.
“They’ve been found to contain lead, rat droppings – even human faeces.”
It was this third kind I was most disturbed to find available on our trip round Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge in the form of the sleekly-packaged brand “Oscar”.
With its original branding, they looked genuine and I assumed “Oscar” was just a brand I’d never heard of.
The packets even have barcodes, though the authority they add is somewhat shattered when an iPhone scanner reads them as “original blue shirts”.
Diverted products were just as easily obtained – from an elderly Barking pub drinker, international food stores and an ice cream shop for children in which single cigarettes are sold over the counter from a stash kept under the hundreds and thousands.
“It’s illegal to sell single cigarettes of any kind,” one secret shopper informed me. “The only people who buy single cigarettes now are children – this is blatantly aimed at kids.
“A lot of kids go for these cigarettes because they’re cheaper.”
Counterfeits were common too, and Will pointed out they were more than just a corporate problem of competition.
“There could be any old thing in there,” he said, holding up some fake Marlboroughs. “Health research found these to contain high levels of arsenic and 30 times more heavy metals from soil than legal cigarettes.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – about 10 per cent of all tobacco smoked in the UK is illegal.”
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