Eight stores in Gravesend, Kent have been raided by local authorities, resulting in the seizure of 242,500 cigarettes and 1,516 pouches of tobacco.
The raids took place on 3 & 4 April and involved North Kent’s Community Safety Unit, Gravesham Council, Kent Trading Standards, HMRC and the Home Office Immigration Enforcement team. The seizures are worth an estimated street value of £76,000.
In one of the stores, a secret tunnel in a basement and a makeshift chute were uncovered by specialist detection dogs.
When officers removed a false panel, they found that a tunnel had been dug through to the basement of the adjoining shop which contained 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 the shop which resulted in the seizure of 58,900 illicit cigarettes and 135 pouches of tobacco hidden behind magnetic concealments inside three false walls.
Inspector James Beautridge of North Kent’s Community Safety Unit said: “The results from these two days shows 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.
“Regulations are in place to ensure that the tobacco products consumed on a daily basis are as safe as possible and do not contain unregulated ingredients. Kent Police is determined to work with our partner agencies to stamp out the illegal sale of unregulated tobacco and hold offenders to account for their behaviour which is why operations such as this one are so important.’
During the operation illegal vapes were also seized and fines were issued for immigration offences.
Tano Grima, assistant director of South East Immigration Enforcement, added: “This is a great result and shows the vital role Immigration Enforcement plays in tackling crime. These people are not only breaking the law and defrauding the public purse, they may also be vulnerable to exploitation because they don’t have the same protections as those who work here legally.
“We are committed to safeguarding people at risk of modern slavery and are pleased to be a part of this targeted, joined-up approach.”