THOUSANDS of smuggled cigarettes have been taken off the streets of Sunderland.
About 646,000 cigarettes and 327kg of hand-rolling tobacco were seized across the region between September and December, including raids at several Wearside “tab houses”.
The majority of the tobacco seized was illegal imports from factories in the Far East, containing no health warnings, sparking concerns that they are being sold to youngsters for slashed prices.
Richard Ferry, of the North East Trading Standards Association, said: “The unique thing about the North East and Sunderland is that a lot of cigarettes are sold from houses, called tab houses, rather than under the counter in shops.
“We are needing information from members of the public about where this is going on because a lot of the time these are being sold to children, who are getting addicted.”
In a bid to tackle the problem, the Get Some Answers campaign is being launched again across the region, after netting criminals and thousands of imported cigarettes when it was held last year.
Fears have been also been raised over the number of youngsters getting hooked on cigarettes, and health bosses feel the illegal trade is further fuelling the problem.
Nonnie Crawford, director of public health for Sunderland at NHS South of Tyne and Wear, said: “Illegal tobacco is a major concern because it makes it easier for children to start smoking as it is cheaper and tab houses will sell to anyone.
“Whilst smoking levels are reducing amongst young people nationally, that picture is not as clear in Sunderland.
“A recent survey found that 13 per cent of Year 10 boys and more than 20 per cent of Year 10 girls smoke.
“Smoking-related illnesses account for thousands of deaths in Sunderland every year.
“Locally, deaths due to lung cancer alone are over 50 per cent higher than the national rate.
“If young people continue to take up smoking, this worrying trend will endure for many years to come.
“We would urge the public to support this campaign to protect our children from the dangers of tobacco, both now and in the future.”
Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh Smoke Free North East, added: “It’s a real worry that a teenager on an estate in Tyneside, Durham, Teesside or Wearside can buy a packet of illegal cigarettes and get no health warning at all.
“The sellers have no morals. They will even sell single cigarettes called ‘lucies’ to children.
“Every parent should be concerned if a tab house is in their area.”
Residents are being urged to phone Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111 if illegal tobacco is being sold near them.