PC Rob Sparkes, from Bedfordshire Police’s licensing department, gives an insight into his role after a crackdown on the sale of illicit tobacco in Bedfordshire.
As a licensing officer, part of my role is to support local authority Trading Standards by helping them run operations into the sale of such products, and the breach of licences.
We are there to help keep the peace and enforce the notices handed to any vendor found to be selling illegal items.
In partnership, we go round and target premises where our intelligence has suggested under-the-counter sales of tobacco are taking place.
We take control of the shop for a period of time and search the premises with a sniffer dog – going through store rooms and under the counter.
We see some interesting things.
One premises we entered in the county recently had even created a false wall with a mirror over it in order to hide the illicit products.
In some, the tobacco itself is not safe for sale, in others we have discovered tens of thousands of cigarettes on which no duty had been paid.
The problem is, the shop owners think they can make so much money out of this dangerous enterprise. For them, it’s big business.
Some of the tobacco comes all the way from the Far East, which has got anything and everything you can imagine laced within it. This is even known to include animal faeces.
We get good results in ‘hotspot’ areas across the county.
As a team we have the power to remove the alcohol licences of any shops found to be distributing illegal tobacco. The drink itself might not be a problem, but the restriction impacts very heavily on their business.
This kind of work is beneficial for so many reasons.
It is protecting the public – anyone could buy this tobacco, and they would have no idea what they’re smoking. It can cause them even more harm than smoking does in the first place.
Additionally, we often find that the people selling this kind of product are connected with other organised crime that takes place.
Tobacco, alcohol and food are easy ways for organised crime to function.
They believe the penalties are much less, and the rewards much higher.
For us, it’s not just about catching them. The revocation of their alcohol licences can stop the business operating all together.
At the end of the day, my job is about keeping the public safe, and making sure people obey the law – no matter who they are.