Thousands of illegal cigarettes and 11kg of rolling tobacco were seized in a series of raids on shops in Southend.

In total, 18,000 illegal fags were found and Southend Council has warned smokers who buy illegally imported and fake products are putting their health at risk.

Experts say the products are being laced with rat droppings, dead insects, asbestos and other harmful ingredients in a bid to pass them off as genuine.

The raids were carried out by officers from Southend Council’s Trading Standards team, HMRC, HM Immigration and Essex Police.

Officers carried out unannounced checks on a number of shops as part of a crackdown on illegally imported and fake tobacco products being sold in Southend. The cigarettes and rolling tobacco will be destroyed and each of the businesses, which have not been named, will now face legal action.

A spokesman for Southend Council said: “Smokers are putting their health at greater risk as Southend is swamped with illegal cigarettes and tobacco.

“Rat droppings, dead insects, asbestos and other harmful ingredients are being mixed with poor quality tobacco to be sold off as genuine branded products at a fraction of the legal price and there are fears the trade is helping to fund terrorism and organised crime.

“The sale of cheap tobacco undermines attempts to reduce the prevalence of smoking, and also makes it impossible for legitimate businesses to compete.

“They are also usually manufactured without the self-extinguishing properties of genuine cigarettes and pose a greater fire risk which in some cases has been linked to deaths.”

Trading Standards officers used the support of specially-trained sniffer dog units to pinpoint the exact location of illegal tobacco products in shops, with many shop owners crafting highly-elaborate hiding places used to conceal the products, with only the dogs’s sense of smell detecting the stash.

The premises raided included second-hand goods stores, convenience stores and greengrocers.

Additionally, a large amount of counterfeit household products were seized. A vehicle believed to have been used by a shop for storing and transporting illegal tobacco and cigarettes was also seized by officers during the operation.