Detection dogs pound the Exeter streets to ask local residents to sniff out illegal tobacco

Phoebe the dog and the Devon and Somerset Trading Standards team

Posted on: 16 October 2015

Local enforcement teams and their sniffer dogs will take to the streets of Exeter on Monday (19 October) to ask for the public’s help in tackling the sellers of illegal tobacco.

Currently over 100,000 people in Devon smoke, and around 3% of these buy illegal tobacco. Illegal tobacco is known to make it easier for children to start smoking, as it is sold at cheap prices, and is also known to make communities more attractive to criminals, who can have links to organised crime.

Trading Standards officers from Devon and Somerset Trading Standards, supported by Smokefree South West, will be joined by specially-trained tobacco detection dogs, Scamp, Phoebe and Yoyo, at the Illegal Tobacco Mobile Unit at Princesshay, Exeter.

The dogs, which are all ex-rescue dogs, have helped officers sniff out thousands of pounds worth of illegal tobacco, which is often hidden behind fake walls or in unusual locations.

The information about where the illegal tobacco was being sold has often come from members of the public.

The ‘Keep it Out’ campaign has been running for five years and aims to help the public know what illegal tobacco looks like; what the dangers are, and encourages them to keep their eyes open and report illegal tobacco being sold in their neighbourhood.

Since the campaign first launched, the number of smokers buying illegal tobacco in the South West has fallen by more than a fifth (20%) in just three years, from 20% of smokers in 2010, to 16% in 2013.

A recent survey shows that the public are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of illegal tobacco

Councillor Andrea Davis, Devon County Council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “All tobacco is harmful, but illegal tobacco poses an additional threat to our children and communities, because it is sold at pocket money prices by criminals who are not interested in asking for proof of age.

Cllr Andrea Davis

Cllr Andrea Davis

“This isn’t just about shops and retail premises. Younger people are more likely to visit “fag houses” to buy cigarettes. It puts them into risky situations with adults who might also be selling alcohol, drugs or who might take the opportunity to exploit the relationship that gets built up over time.”

Cllr Roger Croad
Cllr Roger Croad

Councillor Roger Croad, Devon County Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for trading standards said:

“Trading Standards along with Public Health colleagues are determined to crack down on the sale and supply of illegal tobacco.

“It is one of our top priorities for action, not only because smoking remains one of the UK’s biggest causes of premature death but we also know that the availability of cheap, illegal tobacco makes it harder for people to give up smoking.”

The sale of illegal tobacco is a criminal offence. Anyone wishing to report the selling of illegal tobacco can report anonymously online to Trading Standards at or call the Illegal Tobacco Hotline (operated by the Tackling Illegal Tobacco for Better Health Partnership) on 0300 999 0000.  They cannot trace your call and will never ask for your name.

Andrea Dickens, deputy director of Smokefree South West, said: “If you see it, please report it, this isn’t about some ‘harmless bootlegging’, it’s about keeping criminals out of your neighbourhood and children and young people safe from harm and a potentially deadly habit.

“There is a lot of work being done across the region to tackle illegal tobacco but we need the public support to help us. Please tell us about where illegal tobacco is being sold, either in person at our mobile illegal tobacco unit, go online or via our hotline. “

The South West campaign is part of the wider Tackling Illegal Tobacco Programme which draws together local authorities in the South West with HMRC, Trading Standards, police forces, Scambusters, Crimestoppers and other key partners to tackle this issue.

What should you look out for when it comes to illegal tobacco being sold?

Illegal tobacco can sometimes be hard to spot, but if you come across anyone selling tobacco products look out for the following

  • Price less than half the usual retail price.
  • Missing ‘UK Duty Paid’ stamp.
  • No health warning.
  • Foreign language on packs – specifically the health warning.
  • Printing errors on the pack.
  • Unusual taste and smell.

Illegal Tobacco and plain standardised packaging

There is no evidence that standardised packaging will bolster the illegal tobacco trade as some tobacco multinationals suggest. Branded tobacco packaging is no obstacle to counterfeiters and standardised packs would carry the same covert markings currently used to distinguish legal from illicit tobacco products. Legislation which ensures tobacco packaging is free from attractive designs will, above all else, help to discourage children from starting to smoke.

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