You might think illegal tobacco isn’t a big deal. It’s just cheap cigarettes or nothing to do with you. But illegal tobacco is behind many of our communities’ problems.

Organised crime groups are drawn to illegal tobacco because they see fewer risks and easy profits but people who buy illegal tobacco are, often unknowingly, lining these criminals’ pockets at the expense of local communities.

Some of the businesses on our high streets are run by criminals – we’ve found local corner shops, barber shops, kebab houses, car washes all with links to the illegal tobacco trade. This has a negative impact on communities plus it undermines wider efforts to reduce adult smoking and stop kids smoking. Smoking remains our single greatest preventable cause of health problems and inequalities, that’s why, along with 8 in 10 people in Greater Manchester, we are determined to Make Smoking History

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) report explains that the sale of illicit tobacco is often a cover for human trafficking and modern slavery. The business model involves trafficking vulnerable people from Eastern Europe or the Middle East and subjecting them to debt-bondage, often housing them in converted garages. Male victims are put to work in the shops, selling illicit tobacco, while female victims are sexually exploited in brothels and subjected to violence and intimidation. These victims are often moved around business premises to avoid detection, paid small amounts and controlled by the criminal gangs. Children are also used to move supplies around. There is enough evidence to suggest links to other types of organised criminality including drugs, firearms and burglaries.

It’s our most vulnerable people who are most affected. The poorest, who say they struggle to afford to smoke, buy illegal tobacco. Young care leavers and asylum seekers are recruited at the end of the chain, selling these illegal products and made scapegoats for the people profiting behind them. They are promised an easy way to make money, but don’t see the life of crime and debt ahead of them. Our youngest are affected too – unlike legitimate tobacco retailers, illegal tobacco sellers have no qualms about selling to underage smokers.

Partners across Greater Manchester have been working hard to cut the supply of, and demand for, illegal tobacco. Since 2018, a joint effort from health agencies, local councils, trading standards, the police, customs and border force has made huge strides in taking the problem off our streets, cutting supplies and stopping people from reoffending.

Our eight part ‘GM tackling illegal tobacco for better health’ programme of work, which includes the Keep It Out campaign, has seen large increases in the number of reports of illegal tobacco sales, and fewer smokers are trying and buying illegal tobacco. Encouragingly too, more non-smokers, and smokers alike, see illegal tobacco as an important issue, agreeing that illegal tobacco puts children at risk, encourages gangs and crime, and is a big deal. This echoes the views of enforcement partners who now see illegal tobacco as a priority area.

However, news of a sharp rise in the number of teenagers being offered illegal tobacco across the Greater Manchester area is worrying and shows we need to continue our focus on keeping illegal tobacco out of our communities.

The most recent survey by the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership showed one in four of our 14-15-year-old smokers are now being offered illegal tobacco – up from one in ten in 2018. All smoking kills and an increase in the number of younger people being offered illegal tobacco ‘under the counter’ in local shops or from strangers on the street is a disturbing trend, which could start a dangerous lifelong habit and expose kids to an underworld of crime, drugs and trafficking.

The next time you see someone selling illegal tobacco, or are offered it yourself, please think about how the ‘cheap’ cigarettes and tobacco get to you. I’d urge you to remember it’s not just the person selling you the cigarettes and tobacco from their holiday – reduced travel in lockdown has proven that – it’s the people running the shop, others transporting and storing it, those smuggling it into the country, and manufacturing counterfeit or those responsible for products slipping out of the legal supply routes into the hands of organised criminals. They are the people who benefit from a habit that will kill one in two of its long-term users.

Please help us protect the citizens of Greater Manchester from the harms of illegal tobacco. Let’s work together to ensure Greater Manchester remains a safe place for people to live.

If you know where illegal tobacco is being sold, you can report anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or online at keep-it-out.co.uk.

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