Belfast Telegraph

Belfast cut-price cigs contained rat droppings and human faeces

By Luke Barnes

Smokers seeking a bargain have been warned to think twice before buying 'under the counter' cigarettes in Northern Ireland - as they could contain anything from rat droppings to human faeces.

Packets with names like Excellence, American Legends or Jing Ling may seem like a steal at £3.50.

But they've been found to contain droppings from rodents as well as human excrement.

And if that wasn't bad enough, they are often used to help finance organised crime and terrorism.

On Friday, the Belfast Telegraph joined a team of investigators carrying out undercover sting operations on shops selling black-market cigarettes.

The team was led by Will O'Reilly, a former Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector, who now works for tobacco company, Phillip Morris International.

He said: "Cigarettes and fuel laundering are the two primary sources of income for terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland, and most of the money behind these will filter its way back to terrorists and organised criminal groups."

Mr O'Reilly was on the look-out for three types of black market cigarettes.

These included counterfeits, which have a manufacturers' trademark which is used illegally, and contraband, cigarettes that enter a market in violation of its fiscal or custom laws.

However, it is the 'Illicit Whites' that are the main problem facing Northern Ireland.

These cigarettes are produced in one market, normally a free trade zone, and smuggled into another market where they aren't allowed to be sold.

Mr O'Reilly explained: "You can make these for 20p, and every container organised crime gets in is more than a million pounds in profit."

The previous day, his team had visited 34 different venues across Belfast, all selling illegal cigarettes.

Mr O'Reilly specialised in organised crime during his 30 years as a police officer.

He found that one of the biggest recent changes was that criminal groups were moving away from drugs and firearms and towards easier sources of income, like illegal cigarettes.

They yield high profit margins and are not a policing priority, so the chances of getting caught are slim. According to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), there has been a significant rise in illegal tobacco products, at a cost to the Treasury of £2.4 billion a year.

A distinctive aspect about the trade in Northern Ireland, according to Mr O'Reilly, is that it is the only place in the UK where indigenous white retailers are selling illicit tobacco.

In his experience, the usual culprits tend to be people from ethnic groups or those who sell online or in pubs.

Mr O'Reilly leads a five-strong team whose job is to gather intelligence to give to HMRC, which will then get warrants and conduct raids.

Two of the team are also former police officers - one investigated traffic fatalities and the other worked undercover in narcotics.

The other two are from Poland and Lithuania. 'Jack' said that made it easier for them to conduct stings in eastern European communities throughout the UK.

In barely 30 minutes, the team found four different venues between North Queen Street and the Antrim Road that were selling illegal cigarettes under the counter.

Despite the dangers of Illicit Whites, the authorities in Northern Ireland haven't always been enthusiastic about dealing with the issue, Mr O'Reilly suggested.

He claimed: "The problem you get over here is the local Trading Standards Agency won't tend to deal with it because it's too risky for them to go into some of these shops and areas, and police say it's not a priority."

But he added that clamping down on illegal cigarettes would be a good way to stop more organised crime in Northern Ireland: "If you try and tackle it from the other way up, this is where the funding comes for some of their serious problems."

Belfast Telegraph


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