A number of shops in Boston and the rest of Lincolnshire are being set up purely to sell illicit cigarettes, according to the county’s trading standards chief.
Last week alone, two stores had their licence revoked or suspended by the council, and two others were raided by police and trading standard officers in the town.
But the fight to shut down the trade is being hampered by increasingly sophisticated methods of hiding the smuggled cigarettes – and the fact that too often, licence holders change each time they are dealt with by the courts.
Now a new initiative has been launched across the county to take a different approach to tackling the growing problem.
Damian Holmes spoke to Lincolnshire County Council’s principal trading standards officer Andy Wright, who revealed details of the proposals…
Landlords who allow shops selling illegal cigarettes to operate from their property will find themselves in the firing line in the latest move to tackle the shops selling them.
Thousands of smuggled cigarettes, along with illicit alcohol, were seized in two raids by trading standards officers and police last week at shops in Boston.
The raids discovered cigarettes stashed in an elaborate, purpose-built, hidden compartment in a wall at Euro Express on West Street, and illegal cigarettes and alcohol was seized from European Food & Wine Ltd on Red Lion Street.
And two council licensing sub-committee meetings acted against other stores in the town after hearing evidence from police officers about illegal cigarettes seized in raids earlier in the year.
Tatry in West Street, Boston, has had its alcohol licence suspended for two months and Biedronka in High Street had its licence revoked for similar offences.
While welcoming these victories, Mr Wright says one of the main problems they are facing is the fact that all too often, it is the same businesses they are acting against, they normally have a new licensee on the forms when they are caught at it again six or 12 months down the line.
“What we have found is there is a never-ending supply of people willing to put their names on forms to say they are running the business, and that is probably all they do,” he said.
“What it means is we deal with the person running the business. Then next time we find goods on the property six or 12 months later there’ll be a whole new person on the documents.
“That means we repeatedly just get first time offenders with no history attached to them. We can’t prosecute a building – we just prosecute the person responsible.”
So he and his team have come up with a new long term strategy to deal with that by targeting the property owners as well as the business.
Operation Aladdin will see trading standards officers giving notice to landlords of shops that they seize cigarettes or alcohol from that they could face prosecution under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
With a maximum sentence of 14 years for offences, and the possibility of rent paid being ordered to be forfeited, Mr Wright hopes this will be a wake-up call for the landlords.
“When we find illicit cigarettes, we are going to take action in the normal way we would against the business, but we will also be writing to the owner of the property itself, telling them we believe the rent is derived from proceeds. We are putting them on notice,” he said.
“I’m not aware of anyone else who has taken this tack to deal with illicit cigarette sales.
“We are hopeful this will bear fruit. We think as a long-term solution, its likely to bear more fruit than the way we have been doing it over the last five or six years,” he said.
And he warned that any rent property owners receive after they have been served notice could be determined to be a proceeds of crime and confiscated, leaving them with a potentially hefty bill – as well as a criminal record.
He said he believed that the true purpose of a lot of businesses was purely the sale of illicit cigarettes and tobacco.
“Just looking at the number of premises out there that are selling the same type of goods one next to the other next to the other logic would dictate they can’t be making a profit with so many next to one another selling the same thing,” he said.
The illegal cigarettes fall into three areas, said Mr Wright. These are counterfeits - fake branded ones, illicit whites, which don’t pass required safety standards and have led to a number of house fires and even deaths around the county, and genuine cigarettes which are intended for the Eastern European market.
None of them have duty paid on them, and selling them is a crime, he said.
He believes it is a wider network responsible for getting the smuggled cigarettes to the shops. “I think it’s organised crime we are talking about.
“The level we are dealing with tends to be with shops and people delivering to them. Unfortunately we don’t have the resource to dig a little bit deeper.
“There are regional and nationwide initiative sometimes, and if we find something like that we’ll look into it but we tend to be dealing with people on the ground.”
It was revealedin the hearings relating to the shops in Boston, that the hides used by the stores are becoming more and more sophisticated.
Sergeant Kim Enderby, Alcohol Licensing Manager for Lincolnshire Police, said after the hearing that suspended Tatry’s licences last week: “This is the third discovery of an electronic “Hide” in Boston following our series of raids.
“Biedronka 77a, High Street, Boston, who had their licence revoked on 3rd October 2018, had a similar device and we also located a ‘Hide’ earlier this week in an unlicensed shop in the town.
“The criminals involved in this activity are increasingly attempting more sophisticated methods to conceal their illegal activity.
“The cigarettes seized were a mixture of non-duty, counterfeit and illicit cigarettes. The counterfeit and illicit cigarettes fail health and safety regulations, do not self-extinguish and have in the past been found to contain rat droppings, sawdust or human excrement mixed in with the tobacco.”
Mr Wright says getting public help is invaluable.
“We will continue to devote what resources we can to this work, but detailed information provided by members of the public makes a significant contribution to what we are able to achieve,” he said.
“Both of the premises raided last week were targeted thanks to intelligence provided by residents of Boston and the surrounding area.
“The success of the operation highlights just how important it is for people to come forward with information to help get these illegal and very often dangerous items off the streets.”
Sgt Enderby agreed. “I would ask the public to report any suspicious activity of this type and help the Police to identify the criminals involved in selling illegal and dangerous items. We remain committed to the disruption, investigation and prosecution of all criminal activity being conducted on our Licensed Premises.”
Anyone with information relating to the sale of illicit cigarettes or alcohol should contact Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111.