MORE of the tobacco smoked in St Helens has been smuggled illegally than in any other major town in the north west.
Shocking new figures show that 17.5 per cent of tobacco products lit up in St Helens have been traded illicitly on the black market.
The 2010 statistics, compiled by tobacco firm Philip Morris International, rated St Helens worse than the likes of Blackburn, Blackpool, Manchester, Preston and Liverpool.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) chiefs say illicit cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco are often smuggled by the same sophisticated distribution networks as those who smuggle drugs and illegal weapons.
John Whiting, HMRC’s assistant director of criminal investigations, said: “Tobacco smuggling is organised crime on a global scale with huge profits ploughed straight back into the criminal underworld, feeding activities like drug dealing, people smuggling and fraud.
“Purchasing cheap cigarettes without the duty paid on them means trading with criminals, and undermining honest businesses.”
The new figures, released last week, showed St Helens out on its own in the north west for the percentage amount of illicit tobacco that is smoked.
Blackburn was second on the list, at 15.2 per cent, with Blackpool third at 13.8 per cent.
Manchester, Preston and Liverpool were next, at 12.6 per cent, 11.2 per cent and 10.5 per cent respectively.
John Whiting also said that counterfeit tobacco products were often made in squalid conditions and some had been found to contain seriously harmful substances such as asbestos, rat droppings, plastics and petrol residues.
He added: “Organised criminal gangs will deal in any commodity – alcohol, tobacco, rebated oils, drugs, stolen goods, illegal immigrants and human trafficking – whatever makes them money and allows them to launder their criminal profits.
“Many people who buy a few cans of lager or dodgy cigarettes do not realise the scale of criminality behind the sellers they are dealing with.”