Multi-agency operations tackling the sale of illicit cigarettes and tobacco in Kent

Specialist detection dogs Bran and Yoyo sit in front of evidence bags full of illicit cigarettes and tobacco seized in a multi-agency operation in Gravesend

A secret basement tunnel and a makeshift chute have been uncovered during a multi-agency operation to tackle the sale of illicit cigarettes and tobacco across Gravesend.

Teams with sniffer dogs visited eight shops across the borough where 242,500 cigarettes and 1,516 pouches of tobacco were seized, worth in total an estimated street value of £76,000.

Over the course of two days, North Kent’s Community Safety Unit officers worked closely with Kent Trading Standards and staff from Gravesham Council, HMRC and Home Office Immigration Enforcement to carry out the proactive operation.

Specialist detection dogs were deployed with Bran, a working cocker spaniel, indicating there was tobacco behind some tiling in a basement. Officers removed this false panel and found a tunnel had been dug through to an adjoining shop’s cellar.

Specialist detection dog Bran sitting in the tunnel he sniffed out and uncovered

Specialist detection dog Bran uncovered the tunnel

Inside the underground space officers found more than 148,000 cigarettes and 1,315 pouches of tobacco - the largest single seizure the team has secured.

In another shop, officers found a chute behind a counter and followed it up to a second floor flat above. Yoyo, also a working cocker spaniel, gave the indication there was tobacco inside so officers forced entry.

Found within the property were 58,900 illicit cigarettes and 135 pouches of tobacco hidden behind magnetic concealments inside three false walls.

Inspector James Beautridge said: “The results show just how prevalent this issue is, and the lengths to which some shop owners will go in order to hide these products and avoid detection. The sale of illicit cigarettes and tobacco poses a serious health risk to consumers and also hinders law abiding businesses.”

During the operation illegal vapes were also seized and fines were issued for immigration offences.

In an earlier day of action, specialist search dog Bran and other canine colleagues Cooper and Griff joined Kent Trading Standards, Kent Police and Immigration officials in the Dartford and Swanley areas.

The focus was the supply of illegal tobacco and vapes on the high street. Teams inspected a number of shops across the two districts and removed a total of 32,306 illegal cigarettes, 7kg of illegal hand rolling tobacco and 860 illegal vapes.

Trading Standards Operations Manager James Whiddett said: “The joint work of all the agencies involved has helped to remove illegal products from shops in Kent.

“These items are illegal. Consumers may not realise that purchasing these items supports and brings crime into our communities that undermines legitimate local businesses who follow the rules and supply legal products. As well as posing health risks, illegal cigarettes and tobacco are more affordable for young people and those trying to quit the smoking habit.

“Illegal vapes or e-cigarettes will not have undergone any of the necessary checks and will carry a risk of containing potentially harmful banned ingredients.

“For all these reasons, we will continue to work alongside our enforcement partners to act against the sale of illegal tobacco and vapes in Kent. "

Lord Michael Bichard, Chair, National Trading Standards, said: “The trade in illegal tobacco harms local communities and affects honest businesses operating within the law. Having removed 21 million illegal cigarettes, 5,800kg of hand rolling tobacco and almost 175kg of shisha products from sale, the National Trading Standards initiative in partnership with HMRC (Operation Cece, which launched in January 2021) continues to successfully disrupt this illicit trade.”

Residents who become aware of shops selling illegal tobacco can report them anonymously by calling Crimestoppers on  0800 555 111.