THE availability of cheap, illegal tobacco in Bolton has been laid bare with eight shops losing operating licences in the last 20 months.

Councillors on Bolton’s scrutiny committee heard the tobacco, which sells for around £4 to £6 for 20 cigarettes, is linked to organised crime, people, trafficking, child exploitations and even terrorism.

The meeting heard when a tobacco company did test purchases last year 27 out of 30 premises visited sold illegal tobacco.

Councillors were told eight shops in Bolton had their licences revoked in 2020 and so far in 2021.

They were St Helens Wine, Corner Shop, M&M Mini Market, Sultania News, AHZ News, Highfield Wines, Pamiros Mini Market and Dino’s.

Andrew Bolan, from the council’s regulatory service gave a presentation to the meeting.

He said: “These cigarettes generally retail in Bolton for between £4 and £6 with normal cigarettes costing £10 to £12.

“It’s appealing and attractive to a smoker.

“Through our intelligence we know it’s easily available in Bolton. We do have a problem.

“A tobacco company came in during the pandemic to do research and out of 30 test purchases they had 27 hits.

“We then acted on that in an enforcement capacity.

“The tobacco comes in from abroad such and China, Russia and the Eastern bloc.

“There are also fake counterfeit cigarettes manufactured in back street factories.

“These cigarettes have fake branded packaging and the buyer could be paying top price for these products.

“Hand rolling tobacco also follows these themes.”

Mr Bolan told the meeting how the tobacco arrived in the UK.

He said: “Millions of these products are smuggled into the UK on container ships.

“A vast amount is getting through and not being detected.

“It is linked to organised criminality and is often more lucrative than drug dealing.

“There is a high profit margin which is then used for other criminality such as people trafficking, child exploitation, money laundering and in some cases even terrorism.”

He said the trade in illegal tobacco cost the treasury £2bn per year in loss of duty and affected legitimate retailers as rogue traders attracted the business.

He went on to say it put children at risk, with evidence shops were selling single cigarettes to children to entice them to smoke.

He added that enforcement in Bolton was going to grow.

He said: “We do go out and target premises, we are going to widen that out. We’ve made in-roads but there’s more to be done.”

He gave an example of a shop which was recently prosecuted in Bolton where less than 20 packets of tobacco were found.

He said magistrates imposed a significant sentence of a 14 month community order and 70 hours unpaid work.

The council was awarded £2,000 in costs and the shop owner was disqualified as a company director for two years.