Smokers are putting their health at risk as Southampton is swamped with illegal cigarettes and tobacco, a Daily Echo-backed investigation can reveal.

Rat droppings, human excrement, dead insects and other harmful ingredients are being mixed with poor quality tobacco to be sold off as genuine branded products at a fraction of the legal price, our under-cover researchers have found.

And there are fears the trade is helping to fund terrorism and organised crime in the UK and abroad.

In corner shops and from beneath the bars of pubs, the trade has reached endemic proportions.

And as well as cheating the tax man out of billions of pounds in lost revenue nationally, the black market trade is harming local businesses and putting smokers in serious danger of harming their health.

Our independent researchers visited stores and pubs across the city posing as normal customers asking if there were cheap cigarettes or tobacco for sale.

Hidden cameras captured shopkeepers handing over cigarettes and rolling tobacco that although it appeared in branded packets and packaging turned out to be fake with no tax having been paid.

“The sale of cheap tobacco and cigarettes undermines attempts to reduce the prevalence of smoking, and also makes it impossible for legitimate businesses to compete."

Examples included a counterfeit packet of Amber Leaf tobacco that was sold to a researcher for £4 when its normal cost would be around £16.60 from legitimate traders.

A pack of 20 Mayfair Cigarettes was handed over for just £3 when the legitimate cost would be £8.39.

Our researchers visited 10 stores in Shirley, St. Mary’s, and other city centre areas where traders had no hesitation in handing over what are termed as non-UK duty paid tobacco products (NUKDP).

All of the illegal tobacco was placed in evidence bags along with details of where the products were purchased and then handed over to the city’s Trading Standards authorities.

We are not identifying which stores were involved as this may prejudice and future legal proceedings the authorities may take.

Nationally, the trade in NUKDP is estimated to cost the UK tax authorities £2 billion each year, money that could be spent on the NHS, social care or schooling.

The trade also robs local stores who only trade in legitimate tobacco where the correct tax for the UK has been paid from valuable custom. 

And there is even the danger to health as it is feared that the NUKDP cigarettes and tobacco have higher levels of dangerous chemicals and include traces of animal droppings including rats, dead insects, asbestos and plastics.

Such ingredients have been found in NUKDP products that have been seized and analysed in the UK.

The rogue ingredients come from the manner in which the tobacco is farmed and then stored as well as the manufacturing process.

In the UK and some other nations hygiene standards for such products as tobacco are set high.

However this is not the case for some areas of the world where health and safety regulations are lax.

Some areas do not include proper filters which means that a single cigarette can be as harmful as smoking 10.

The Daily Echo carried out its investigation with tobacco company JTI who have been active in investigating illegal tobacco in the UK for a number of years. 

Steve Wilkins, Anti-Illegal Trade Operations Director with tobacco company JTI, said: “The availability of cheap illegal tobacco across towns and cities in the UK is damaging local communities and along with retailers, suppliers and the Government we all have a role to play to 
Since September 2013, JTI reports it has removed gantries from 26 retailers convicted of selling illegal tobacco. 

“JTI has had to do this as we continue to see some independent retailers get sucked into this illegal trade, giving honest hard-working retailers a bad name.

"If this type of crime continues, customers who buy tobacco products will lose faith and trust in their local shops as the perception grows that the independent trade is rife with ‘dodgy cigarettes”, commented Mr Wilkins.

“Smokers buying cheap fake cigarettes and tobacco on the streets of the UK may be getting more than they bargain for as these fake imitations have been found to contain asbestos, mould, dust, dead flies, rat droppings and even human excrement.

“JTI fully supports efforts to rid our streets of illegal tobacco and stop criminals infiltrating our communities, and would urge local residents to work with community groups and trading standards to eradicate this type of activity.” 

Mark Yexley, media relations manager for JTI which manufactures Amber Leaf and such cigarette brands as Benson and Hedges and L&M Cigarettes, said: “The impact of illicit trade in tobacco on society is far reaching and members of the public, retailers and suppliers and the Government all have a role to play to combat the issue.

“Criminals who deal in illegal tobacco will sell it to all comers, including children. JTI fully supports any efforts to rid our streets of illegal tobacco and stop criminals infiltrating our communities.” 

Rosie Zambra, Trading Standards regulatory services manager at Southampton City Council, commented on illegal tobacco sales in the city recently when a trader was fined £1,000 after being caught selling the goods.

“We work closely with HMRC where allegations are received that illegal tobacco products are being sold. The penalty imposed will hopefully deter others from selling such products,” commented Ms Zambra. 

This investigation came about following complaints received from other businesses. If any business or member of the public wishes to complain about sales of illegal tobacco please contact us via Citizens Advice on 03454 04 05 06.”

The shop in the St Mary’s area of the city was subject to a test purchase operation organised by Trading Standards.

Then, a 50g pack of tobacco was sold to a council officer for only £6.

Subsequently 1.85kg of tobacco and 460 cigarettes were seized from the premises.

Tests proved the products were illegal, in that they were not UK duty paid and were not labelled with the required health warnings. 

Using this evidence HMRC investigated the person in control of the store at that time, for fiscal marks offences - a total of £599 had been evaded in excise duty and VAT. 

On May 10 of last year the store owner received a fine of £1,000, costs of £85 and victim surcharge of £100, a total of £1,185. 

Have you ever bought cheap or fake cigarettes? 

Anyone with information about this type of crime should contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.