Page last updated at 05:04 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

'Tab houses' target child smokers

Well-known brands are being sold cheaply to children, say investigators

Cheap cigarettes smuggled from abroad and sold illegally in "tab houses" are getting children hooked on smoking, trading standards officers have warned.

About 30% of under 18s admit to buying illicit tobacco, particularly in areas of deprivation, officials say.

The cigarettes are sold from private homes without age checks, creating a new generation of smokers, they claim.

Tobacco smuggling is thought to cost the UK economy about £3bn a year in lost tax revenue.

Trading Standards say "tab houses" are a growing problem, often charging half as much as legitimate shops.

They are also said to introduce some children to cigarettes who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

We're in a recession now, so people want goods cheaply. From the research I've been conducting it's clear that the market in illegal cigarettes is still very solid
Dr Rob Hornsby

Richard Ferry, from Trading Standards North East, told the BBC: "About 30% of under 18s admit to buying cheap and illicit tobacco. It means they start smoking earlier and they can smoke more.

"The people who sell from tab houses don't care who they sell to."

Betty McBride, director of policy and communication at the British Heart Foundation, said: "It is shocking that children's health is being put at risk by people running these illicit tobacco dens.

"Young people who smoke are at great risk of suffering a whole range of life-shortening diseases."

Three types of "tabs" are being sold:

• Duty-free cigarettes, which should be for personal use

• Counterfeit versions of well-known brands

• "Cheap whites" manufactured just for the illegal market

Biggest seizure

Ms McBride said: "MPs recently took a stand to protect our children's health, by voting to ban cigarette vending machines. But now another threat has reared its ugly head with these tab houses.

"This is yet more evidence that we need comprehensive tobacco control strategies across the UK including a crackdown on smuggled tobacco."

The UK Border Agency says it has reduced the proportion of illegal tobacco on the market using new technology including more powerful scanners at ports and airports.

On Tuesday it announced its biggest ever seizure, carried out in a joint operation with Republic of Ireland and Northern Irish authorities, of 120m cigarettes found on a boat off the coast of Ireland.

The haul is thought to have a retail value of about £45m.


View from Newcastle's West End: "If they bring it, I'll buy it"

Trading Standards say as they have cracked down on shops selling illegal tobacco, the problem has moved to private homes instead - undermining efforts to improve health in deprived areas.

Dr Rob Hornsby, a criminologist at Northumbria University, said: "We're in a recession now, so people want goods cheaply. From the research I've been conducting it's clear that the market in illegal cigarettes is still very solid."

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