‘Tab houses’: Investigators find booming illegal tobacco trade in Hartlepool

Will O'Reilly holding a selection of suspected tobacco. Picture by FRANK REID
Will O'Reilly holding a selection of suspected tobacco. Picture by FRANK REID

The illegal tobacco trade in Hartlepool is booming, according to investigators with a higher level of so called ‘tab houses’ compared to other parts of the country.

A team of consultants were able to buy suspected contraband, counterfeit and plain illegal products during a sting operation in town.

They claim the trade in cheap cigarettes and tobacco is more prevalent from individuals’ houses instead of shops in Hartlepool compared to other parts of the country.

During a visit lasting just over a day, the team bought 24 packets of suspect cigarettes and three packets of tobacco.

The investigating team said they soon came across people who were happy to identify addresses locally where cigarettes are being sold.

Illegal tobacco products fall into three categories comprising fake versions of legitimate products, those brought into the country from abroad to avoid the tax, and so-called ‘illicit whites’ cigarettes made by crime gangs which have no legal market anywhere.

Products suspected of falling under each category were bought in Hartlepool.

Will O’Reilly, a former Scotland Yard detective chief inspector, who led the-test purchasing operation, which was commissioned by a tobacco company, said: “It just shows how the illicit trade is booming. Everything we collected is deliberately being sold very cheap by irresponsible people not worried by the consequences.

“A lot of the stuff is smuggled into the country by organised criminal gangs. People tempted to buy should recognise they are funding organised crime as the money is reinvested into other criminal enterprises.”

He added: “Hartlepool is probably no worse than anywhere else. We found a lot more of people selling from private addresses and less from retail premises or the internet here.”

Illicit whites are made for as little as 20p a pack and can contain floor sweepings including rat droppings.

A Hartlepool Borough Council spokesman said: “Trading standards relies on the public, traders and others to provide it with information so that it can most efficiently target its resources. We receive very little information concerning the sale of illegal cigarettes in Hartlepool but, when we do, we take appropriate action. We have a number of investigations underway in relation to counterfeit products but many issues with smuggled cigarettes do not fall within the scope of trading standards as they are a matter of unpaid taxes which falls under the jurisdiction of HM Revenue and Customs.”

The test purchase team’s Hartlepool findings will be passed on to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to decide what action to take.