Deaths lead to checks on illegal cigarettes

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RIGOROUS new safety checks will be made on bootleg cigarettes blamed for fires claiming the lives of two women in the South Holland.

Pauline Hurst (70), of Sutton Bridge, and June Buffham (71), of Spalding, both died this year after dropping cigarettes that smouldered in the chairs they were sitting in and caught alight.

The inquest on the latest tragedy involving the death of Mrs Buffham in April took place at Boston Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

In both cases, the women were semi-bedridden and living downstairs in lounge-bedrooms, and fires started after they had been smoking illegal brand cigarettes.

Coroner’s officer David Lea said the cigarette that started the fire at Mrs Buffham’s Stonegate home was a Jinling – a brand originating in Russia.

He said: “In spite of Boston’s historic links with Kaliningrad, where the cigarettes are manufactured, and the number of Russian’s working and living in the county, there is no evidence Jinlings are being smuggled into Boston port.

“This is a nationwide problem where illegal cigarettes are touted in pubs and shops for £3 and £4 a packet. It is important if people are approached to buy them they make the police aware.

“What is encouraging is since new safety standards were introduced in Finland, fires have reduced by more than 40 per cent.”

Until now, undercover operations involving Trading Standards, HMRC and the police have targeted places selling cheap, foreign brands where duty had not been paid.

But new safety standards introduced by the EU in November last year call for no more than 25 per cent of tested cigarettes to achieve a full-length burn when not being actively smoked.

Emma Milligan, of Lincolnshire Trading Standards, said: “Testing cigarettes that we have seized is something completely new for us, but after the recent tragedies it has become more necessary to think beyond whether they were illegal and if duty had been paid on them.”

Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue station manager Peter Wiles said in 2010, 212 people across England died in fires and 81 of them were related to smoking material.

In March last year, Lincolnshire Safer Communities, HMRC and Lincolnshire Police joined forces to target establishments selling illegal cigarettes.

HMRC’s assistant director led the operation that included a national information sharing agreement and Lincolnshire was one of the first authorities to sign up to it.

The Lincolnshire pilot has been so successful it is now being mirrored across other parts of the country.

Spalding’s Euro Mini-Market in Station Street lost its licence to sell alcohol and cigarettes after raids on the store found smuggled goods stashed away in hidey holes.

In May, 6,000 illegal cigarettes were seized by police during a raid at the mini-market.

Staff were already under investigation after more than 4,000 cigarettes were seized in an operation in February.

Lincolnshire Smoke Free Alliance funded a tobacco dog on two separate occasions to sniff out the hidden illegal tobacco that would have otherwise gone undetected.

A written statement from Trading Standards said: “Cigarettes made in the EU must now conform to certain fire safety standards, which prevent them from burning too long if they’re not being actively smoked.

“Of course, cigarettes purchased legally outside of the EU or before the new rules took effect may not have this safety feature. But our biggest concern is with illegal cigarettes – those that have been illegally imported from areas that don’t have to follow the safety rules, and fake ones which simply ignore the rules and are full of nasty contents that are even more harmful than normal cigarettes.

“Lincolnshire Trading Standards continues to work closely with the police and HMRC to stamp out the serious threat posed by illegal goods.”

Emma added: “Enquiries are ongoing – I’m sure we will be back in Spalding.”