MORE than a third of cigarettes smoked in South Shields are counterfeit or were bought outside the UK, a study has revealed.
The scale of the problem emerged after researchers collected empty cigarette packets from the town’s streets and bins as part of national survey.
It was found that 35.2 per cent of the packets gathered in South Shields were either bootlegged or bought overseas.
That figure, up from 13.4 per cent in 2013, is well above the regional average of 25.4 per cent and gives the town the 11th highest non-domestic rate in the UK.
South Tyneside Council’s trading standards team seized more than 108kg of illegal hand-rolling tobacco, along with 5,000 cigarettes, between April and December last year.
It’s estimated that black market tobacco costs the Government £3bn annually in lost taxes, and that money is often used to fund organised crime.
Coun Tracey Dixon, the council’s lead member for area management and community safety, pictured, said: “Sale of illegal tobacco is not a victimless crime.
“Because it is cheap, it is often sold to children and young people, putting them at risk of developing a harmful addiction.
“The reduced cost also makes tobacco more affordable for those on lower incomes, making them less likely to give up, and it has a negative impact on legitimate traders who operate within the law.
“We are determined to stamp out the sale and supply of illicit tobacco. Between April and December last year, our trading standards officers seized more than 108kg of illegal hand-rolling tobacco and 5,000 cigarettes.
“More people are coming forward with information, which shows that they are less prepared to turn a blind eye to this sort of activity. We hope this support continues, and we will take action against those responsible wherever possible.”
The survey, carried out my MSIntelligence and funded by organisations including British American Tobacco, saw 12,700 packs collected from all over the UK.
Will O’Reilly, a former Scotland Yard detective chief inspectorhelping carry out the research, said: “The widespread availability of illicit tobacco has a devastating impact on our local communities.
“It not only undermines legitimate retailers but leads to a knock-on effect in local crime generally, such as we have seen before with street dealing in drugs and how that can devastate a community”.
Tobacco experts in the region believe that, though there is still a problem with bootleg cigarettes, it is not as big an issue as it was.
Richard Ferry, of the North East Trading Standards Association, said: “The illicit tobacco market in the North East has roughly halved over the past decade.
“The latest official figures show around one in 10 cigarettes is illegal, compared to one in five in 2000. We need continued action at national, regional and local level.
“While illegal tobacco is still a problem is some areas, litter-picks are known to be pretty worthless and have been attacked for overestimating the size of the market.”
Anyone with any information about illegal tobacco is asked to call the council on 0800 093 5878.
Black market trade relies on tab houses to make money
SO-called tab houses are one of the main ways the illegal tobacco trade operates in South Tyneside.
It’s estimated there are more than 200 homes in the borough at which black-market tobacco is being sold.
However, many people see the owners of tab houses as modern-day Robin Hoods and don’t report their locations to the authorities.
The Gazette first highlighted the issue in 2010.
Some traders were selling tobacco to youngsters aged just eight.
A trading standards service spokesman said: “The problem we have is that the people who run these tab houses are seen as the estate’s champions or the modern-day Robin Hoods.
“They think they’re doing no harm by buying a cheap packet of fags from them, but, in reality, it is far more serious than this, and we need the public to inform us of these places.”
It’s estimated one in every three of 14 to 17-year-olds in the borough have bought cigarettes from these houses, which operate by word of mouth.