Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 11:20 UK

Secrets of smuggled cigarettes

By Sallie George
BBC News

Toy used to smuggle cigarettes
Thousands of cigarettes were hidden inside this teddy bear

To the untrained eye they seem like ordinary goods - leather sofas, timber, even soft toys and lunch boxes - but hidden inside, millions of illegal cigarettes have been discovered.

Among the vast array of items which criminals try to smuggle through Birmingham Airport are guns and knives, animals, drugs, prescribed medicines and false passports.

But it is illicit cigarettes, both genuine and counterfeit, which make up the bulk of the hauls seized by customs officers.

On Friday, a hard-hitting campaign to warn smokers of the dangers of buying counterfeit cigarettes was launched in the West Midlands and Staffordshire by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Smokefree Alliance groups.

For those tasked with detecting the hauls before they arrive on the streets, it is a massive challenge.

Hidden inside anything from teddy bears to oil paintings, children's lunch boxes to hollow computers, the smugglers are constantly trying to find increasingly imaginative ways to disguise their hauls.

This is serious organised crime and will involve all the components of that, such as extortion and murder
Jennie Kendall, HRMC

Freight team leader for HMRC at Birmingham Airport, Jim Ferguson, said: "There is no such thing as a normal day."

"Freight is trade and we have a responsibility not to hold up legitimate goods. We can have consignments come through with a legitimate name, but with illegitimate contents.

"So we look for abnormalities - things which are not right tend to stick out. And if we are lucky once, we will continue being lucky because we will know what to look for.

"They [the smugglers] don't always think the whole process through, and coupled with that, they don't think we are as good as we are."

The trade in illegal cigarettes in England is big business.

Customs officers seized more than 50 million illicit cigarettes and nearly 4,250 kilos of hand rolling tobacco in the West Midlands area in 2007.

Of these hauls, 70% were found to be counterfeit.

Jennie Kendall, spokeswoman for HMRC, said the dangers of smoking counterfeit cigarettes were vastly underrated.

Counterfeit Kills logo
The 'counterfeit kills' campaign aims to raise awareness of the trade

Made in bonded labour factories in China and Eastern Europe, a packet of 20 counterfeit cigarettes can cost as little as 9p to manufacture.

Expertly packed by fraudsters, they are practically impossible to distinguish from a packet of genuine cigarettes.

But in addition to containing higher levels of chemicals, they have been found to contain sawdust, tobacco beetles and even rat droppings.

In October 2007, a system of covertly marking packets of genuine cigarettes was introduced in a bid to disrupt the counterfeit trade.

The system will be introduced to packets of hand rolling tobacco later in 2008.

Ms Kendall said: "People who are selling these into the UK are not concerned who they are selling to, they are going to be selling to anybody and everybody, including children and young people.

"But of course, people don't know what they are smoking, and that is the risk they are taking.

"Most people, when they are buying cheap cigarettes, don't know that there is a high chance they are buying counterfeit."

In addition to the increased health risks, the trade in illegal cigarettes has other serious implications.

"This is serious organised crime and will involve all the components of that, such as extortion and murder," she said.

"This is not about somebody bringing in a couple of thousand cigarettes legally and selling them on to you - that is illegal in itself - but there is another very serious dimension.

"If you are buying cigarettes from the man on the street, in the pub, or at the car boot sale, you won't see that link right up the chain."

Fake cigarettes campaign launched
18 Apr 08 |  Staffordshire
Counterfeit cigarettes are seized
24 Jul 07 |  Nottinghamshire
14m counterfeit cigarettes seized
12 Feb 07 |  Coventry/Warwickshire

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