A BOROUGH'S trading standards officers supported by the police have made their biggest-ever seizure of illegal cigarettes and tobacco.

The team from Blackburn with Darwen Council supported by police confiscated more than £100,000 worth of contraband in a co-ordinated series of three raids last week.

They seized 215,000 illegal cigarettes 25 kilograms of rolling tobacco as well as a quantity of shisha and chewing tobacco.

The raids on two shops, one in Blackburn town centre and one in Bastwell, and a further non-retail trade premises were a record for the borough trading standards department.

Specially trained sniffer dogs hired from specialist firm Wagtail UK helped the trading standards officers find the illicit tobacco.

More than 15,000 illegal cigarettes were found at the two retailers.

When the dogs indicated that tobacco was present on another premises believed to be linked to the other two, a forced entry led to the discovery of almost 200,000 illegal or counterfeit cigarettes.

The seizure has been welcomed by Cllr Suleman Khonat, national spokesman for the Tobacco Retailers Alliance who owns three shops across East Lancashire,

Cllr Jim Smith, the borough council's executive member for environment, said: "This is the largest single tobacco seizure the council’s trading standards team has ever made and enquiries into the people behind it are ongoing.

"This is an amazing result.

"We know illegal tobacco has strong links with organised crime and criminal gangs, so many of the people smuggling, distributing and selling it are involved in other criminal activities.

"It could also contain literally anything, and can potentially seriously damage people’s health.

“Selling illegal tobacco is a serious and far-reaching crime and that is why we always take it so seriously.”

Gary Johnston, service manager for the council's Public Protection and Environmental Health team, said: “More and more people over the past few years have decided enough is enough and are providing information to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, trading standards and police to stop local criminals selling and distributing illegal tobacco.”

Shear Brow ward's Cllr Khonat said: "We absolutely welcome this record seizure.

"I would like to thank all the council officers involved as it take time to monitor and catch people trading in illegal cigarettes and tobacco.

"These criminals are depriving legitimate retailers of their trade and income and also the government of taxation needed to pay for public services.

"Nobody knows how they are spending this illegal income.

"We don't know whether they are funding other criminal activities such drugs.

"I have campaigned long and hard for many years on behalf of retailers throughout the country for them to ensure that legitimate retailers can trade on a level playing field.

"We don't know the composition of these tobacco products which often contain substances harmful to health, which include droppings from rats, that would not be wallowed by the checks of the legitimate tobacco industry.

"This is an illegal trade worth millions which deprives the public of huge amounts of tax revenue."

Offences under investigation include counterfeiting and tobacco labelling with a view to a prosecution by Blackburn with Darwen Council.

The maximum penalties for counterfeiting offences after a Crown Court conviction are 10 years imprisonment and unlimited fine.

Officers will now conduct interviews with those suspected of trading in illegal tobacco as part of continuing inquiries after the raids.

Between April 1 2015 and March 31 2016 borough trading standards officers led 19 raids seizing more than 23,500 cigarettes, 18.1kg of rolling tobacco and 39 packets of ‘niche’ chewing and shisha tobacco.