Undercover investigators discovered thousands of illegal cigarettes sold from under shop counters and back rooms in Sheffield – in two days.
The Star joined the investigation team as they targeted shops across the city where contraband and fake cigarettes were available.
At one store, an investigator was invited into a back room to buy contraband Polish cigarettes and was told ‘the more you buy, the cheaper it gets’.
Another shop was said to be found selling single cigarettes – which the investigation team say is ‘aimed at children’.
One investigator bought a packet of counterfeit tobacco off a man in the street in broad daylight for less than half the retail price.
The team visited dozens of shops over two days and discovered a wide range of brands being illegally sold, some smuggled from abroad to be sold at a cheaper price in the UK.
Former Scotland Yard detective Will O’Reilly, who headed up the investigation, said: “This is the tip of the iceberg in Sheffield.
“Some of these cigarettes are legitimate products, but should not be sold from stores in the UK.”
The team – who had no prior intelligence before coming to the city – visited areas and shops at random for around four hours over two days.
The operation was headed up by former Scotland Yard detective Will O’Reilly and his test purchase investigators – Jane, Sarah and Chris.
Their findings will be compiled into a report and sent on back to their employers, a tobacco firm, and the HM Revenue and Customs.
The team has been travelling up and down the country highlighting the quantity of illegal cigarettes that are readily available across the UK.
Mr O’Reilly said the taxpayer is being short changed by more than £2 billion – which equates to around £250 per household.
The former police detective said some shop owners and people selling on the street or from pubs often will not sell to strangers – but every shop and person the team met in Sheffield happily handed over the products.
After the operation was complete, more than 100 packets were piled onto the car bonnet for inspection.
“All the cigarettes here are all illicit, none should be legally sold in the UK,” Mr O’Reilly said.
“It’s a mixture of contraband stuff, which is smuggled and no tax is paid, and there are counterfeit cigarettes brands.
“There are also illicit whites which are made purely for smuggling and these are used by organised crime which come into the country – and that loses the treasury £2.1bn a year.
“They are completely unregulated and you don’t know what’s in some of these products which comes with extra additional health risks when you smoke some of this stuff.
“Some of these are only manufactured in factories overseas completely illegitimately and then are smuggled back into the UK via a huge container.
“Organised crime groups make around a million pounds a container and get into the UK every year – they can cost 20p per packet to make.”
Mr O’Reilly said they were ‘reasonably surprised’ by their findings in Sheffield.
“It is consistent with cities of this size that we visit across the UK – but we’ve been to streets here where almost every shop in a certain area was selling these kind of products.
“The people that sell this are completely irresponsible.
“We’ve witnessed in the past where shops would be selling to children and even in Sheffield we saw one retailer selling single sticks.
“When that happens, it is clearly aimed at children with each for 50p say. It’s shocking to see.”
Briefed by Will O’Reilly and his team of undercover investigators, we set off to a store near Sheffield city centre.
The shop worker had no issue with handing over two packets of 20 cigarettes at £3.50 each – well under the normal retail price.
Mr O’Reilly inspected the cigarettes and found they had Arabic and French health warnings on the packets.
“These are most likely contraband smuggled over from places like Algeria or Morocco,” Mr O’Reilly said.
“They should not be sold anywhere in the UK – they need English health warnings on them.”
Next we headed to shops around the Abbeydale Road and London area with test purchaser Jane.
The first shop owner looked at us suspiciously as the man behind the counter brought out two packets illicit whites and a packet of contraband cigarettes after a tense five minute wait.
Another shop worker in the same area had packets of illicit whites under the counter.
Investigator James then headed over to another store. The shop worker handed over fake cigarettes with a counterfeit Moldovan tax stamp.
This product even stumped investigators and had to be verified through a special phone app.
Jane then headed towards the north of the city where the investigator had met a man in a pub who said he could get her some cheap tobacco.
In broad daylight on a busy street, the man handed over the tobacco in return for £8 – the brand that was bought retails at around £20.
After closer inspection by Will, he instantly recognises the product was a counterfeit due to its ‘sloppy packaging’.
Jane then headed to a barber’s shop where we were invited into a back room and offered a full sleave of 200 Polish contraband cigarettes.
The worker told the investigator the more she bought ‘the cheaper the price would be’.
While Jane was handing over the money in the barber’s shop, Chris and Sarah were both in Darnall.
They managed to acquire illicit whites, counterfeit and contraband products on two streets.