13 million illegal cigarettes taken off the streets in first year of major operation

Illegal tobacco products worth more than £7 million have been seized in the first year* of a major crackdown on the illicit tobacco trade by National Trading Standards (NTS) and HMRC.

The joint initiative – named Operation CeCe – has removed more than 13 million illegal cigarettes, 4,300kg of hand rolling tobacco and 109.5kg of shisha products from sale, protecting consumers and preventing legitimate, tax paying businesses from being undercut. The illegal trade costs the Treasury £2bn each year.

NTS has worked closely with local authorities and law enforcement partners to disrupt the illegal tobacco trade at street level. Acting on valuable NTS intelligence, officers have been seizing illegal tobacco from retail and residential premises across England and Wales, disrupting the market and preventing fraud. This on-the-ground action is part of a broader strategy that tackles three ‘tiers’ of criminality, with illegal factories abroad being shut down by HMRC and Border Force intercepting smuggled products and cash at the border.

Major raids on street-level sellers carried out as part of Operation CeCe include:

  • 680,380 illegal cigarettes seized from a residential property in Banbury, Oxfordshire, that were advertised for sale via Facebook. These products had an estimated market value of between £150,000 and £200,000.
  • Over 1,300 packets of illegal cigarettes and £70,000 in cash seized following a raid on a so-called ‘tab house’** in Newcastle. The occupants were found to have links to organised crime groups.
  • 900kg of hand rolling tobacco seized in Hull, Yorkshire
  • 267,000 illegal cigarettes seized during a raid in Cardiff, Wales
  • 216,000 illegal cigarettes and 349.7kg of hand rolling tobacco seized in Croydon, south London

Selling illegal tobacco is not a victimless crime. The supply of illegal tobacco puts the health of communities at risk by undermining public health and tax measures to drive down tobacco use. In addition, children are regularly targeted, not only becoming addicted but often being exposed to criminals involved in money laundering and people trafficking.

Following its first-year success saving £8.75 in detriment for every £1 spent on the project, HMRC has committed to providing Operation CeCe with £800,000 of funding annually over the next three years to 2025 plus additional funding of £200,000 for the period January–March 2022. This funding will allow Operation CeCe to continue to support the Government’s strategy to disrupt every aspect of the illegal tobacco market, from frontline street-level sellers to the global organised crime groups who drive the illicit trade, smuggling tobacco internationally on a grand scale.

Wendy Martin, Director, National Trading Standards, said:

“The illegal tobacco trade harms children, wider communities and businesses and props up organised crime. That’s why I am delighted with the success of the first year of Operation CeCe, which clearly demonstrates the benefits of this new joint approach to tackling this vile trade at every level, from the street upwards.

“I’m immensely proud of our partners in local authority Trading Standards for all their work so far. We look forward to continuing to play our part in preventing illegal tobacco from damaging people’s health, strengthening efforts to reduce the number of people who smoke and stopping many legitimate, tax paying businesses from being undersold.”

Richard Las, Head of Operations, HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service, said:

“The ongoing collaboration between HMRC and the NTS shows how serious we are about tackling the illegal trade in tobacco. No crime is victimless. Trade in illegal tobacco undermines legitimate traders, including small, independent shops that serve local communities, and takes funding away from our vital public services. That’s why coordinated activity such as Op CeCe is vital to ensure that we are creating a level playing field for businesses and citizens.

“The excellent work of our teams is also helping to stop tax crime fuelling a raft of other illegal activity that harms communities, including drugs, guns, and human trafficking. 

“HMRC encourages anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco to report it to us. Search ‘Report Fraud HMRC’ on GOV.UK and complete our online form.”

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive, Action on Smoking and Health said:

“With price such an important prompt for smokers to give quitting a go it’s fantastic to be celebrating these achievements on national No Smoking Day. Cheap, illegal tobacco undermines our efforts to help smokers stop and prevent children from starting. It’s vital we keep up this work to rid our streets of the criminal sale of tobacco.”

John Herriman, Chief Executive, Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said:

“Helping enforce tobacco laws is one of the crucial responsibilities of trading standards professionals, who have made significant contributions to the ongoing success of Operation CeCe.

“I applaud National Trading Standards for their sterling work, protecting the health of our communities and making sure illegitimate businesses are prosecuted whilst protecting legitimate ones. I look forward to hearing about the continued success of this groundbreaking operation which is removing vast quantities of illicit tobacco from our streets.”

*Between January 2021 and January 2022. Please find more information here.

**Tab house – a residential address from where illegal tobacco is sold

For ASH resources for No Smoking Day please visit: https://www.todayistheday.co.uk/