COUNTERFEIT cigarettes sold through Facebook are being targeted by undercover trading standards officers as part of a crackdown on phoney fags in Oxfordshire.

The social media website's role in cigarette stings was revealed during a discussion of Oxfordshire County Council's use of surveillance powers.

The council's use of undercover investigations, allowed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), are due to undergo external inspection by the surveillance commissioner.

Ahead of the inspection, trading standards officer Richard Webb told the council's audit and governance committee how the powers had been used in the year between April 2019 and March 2020, including sniffing out counterfeit cigarettes in person and online.

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Mr Webb said: "Illegal tobacco sales occur in many different places; most commonly it is through shops. We might simply ask an officer to go into a shop, purchase products once or twice to get hold of the product for ourselves, establish what is being supplied and confirm whether it is illegal or not."

He added that council officers sometimes pose online as people interested in buying illegal cigarettes online.

Mr Webb said: "Sometimes the activity might involve people selling illegal tobacco online. Commonly these days Facebook is used for the sale and supply of illegal tobacco so looking at someone's Facebook profile, making contact, buying the product, often involving meeting up with the supplier to have the product handed over is also covert surveillance."

Banbury Cake:

Oxfordshire County Council’s audit and governance meeting on September 16 was held online.

Facebook has officially banned the sale of tobacco and alcohol products via its Marketplace, through closed groups, or through seller's pages.

It recommends that people report any abuses of policy such as the sale of tobacco through its report abuse feature.

However, a 2018 investigation by the Sunday Times found that cigarettes were being sold through the social media site by people 'sidestepping' rules: the newspaper found evidence of slang and foreign words being used as search terms for cigarettes.

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Mr Webb also told the council committee that trading standards investigations had targeted some shops aimed at Eastern European communities in Oxfordshire, because they sometimes stocked cigarettes smuggled into the UK without having paid duty tax.

In the April 2019 to March 2020 year, the council authorised a total of seven covert investigations, four of which were related to the sale of illegal cigarettes.

These four undercover operations were related to two different investigations, one of which has led to legal proceedings.

The other three undercover trading standards outings were related to shops selling knives to people under the age of 18.

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Earlier this year, Oxfordshire's council leaders made a pledge to reduce smoking in the county to five per cent or less by 2025

Mr Webb said there had been a 'number of occasions' in the past year where the council had sent young unpaid volunteers, often fire cadets or police cadets, into shops 'under the watch or observation' of council staff to buy knives.

Because of the council officers watching the purchase, the council needed to justify its surveillance under rules in RIPA.

A council investigation in December led to village hardware shop Haynes of Challow, near Wantage, being taken to court in August last year and fined £7,500 for selling a knife to a teenager.

READ AGAIN about the fine the shop was slapped with here

The use of RIPA requires councils to go to a magistrate for a rubber stamp before they can conduct undercover investigations.

A report to the council's audit and governance committee said that all of the seven stings which the council carried out in the 2019-20 year had been authorised by a magistrate.

The county council was expecting an external investigator from the surveillance commissioner's office to look at its use of investigatory powers in September.

But because Oxfordshire is in the process of recruiting a new monitoring officer, a senior staff member who makes sure all council activities are legal, the inspection has been postponed until next year.