7 May 2015

Trading Standards officers and other colleagues at Sheffield City Council have made it through to the finals of a national award for their work on cracking down on illegal alcohol in the city.

The Municipal Journal (MJ) Achievement Awards 2015 are the most prestigious awards in local government and this year’s ceremony is set to take place on Thursday 18 June in London.

Sheffield City Council is one of eight finalists in the Trading Standards and Environmental Health category, after presenting the project findings to judges in London.

The council was nominated for its work on combating an increase in the supply and sale of illicit alcohol in Sheffield from 2011. Sellers were targeting deprived communities, vulnerable people and students with what Trading Standards officers describe as a “reckless” disregard for people’s health. Of most concern was the sale of poisonous industrial alcohol badged to look like it was normal alcoholic drinks.

Ian Ashmore, head of Environmental Regulation at Sheffield City Council, said: “We are delighted to have been shortlisted for this award and are pleased that the hard work carried out in this area, with the invaluable help and support of partner organisations across the city such as the Sheffield Drugs and Alcohol/Domestic Abuse Co-ordination Team, has been recognised on a national level.

“But, more importantly, we are pleased that the work we have done appears to have been successful so far in tackling the problem of industrial alcohol being sold unwittingly to drinkers in Sheffield.

“Although our work is by no means over, and we are aware that smuggled alcohol is sometimes found, there has been a significant reduction in its supply and sale.

“Staff in key organisations, now have the knowledge and skills to advise people on the dangers of illegal alcohol, and we have seen a definite increase in awareness of the issue among target groups, especially young people and students.

“Due to the work we have done, which has now also been replicated by other local authorities, people in Sheffield now have an awareness of counterfeit alcohol and are more likely to know how to spot illicit drink when it is being offered for sale.”

In 2011, Trading Standards staff in Sheffield began to find large amounts of illicit industrial alcohol. It was discovered that illegal suppliers were targeting small retailers, particularly in deprived or student areas, with offers of cheap spirits.

A doctor also told the team that they were seeing unusual symptoms in A&E that could be caused by people drinking counterfeit alcohol, such as industrial alcohol which had been badged for sale as ordinary spirits.

Testing of these products revealed contamination with chloroform, iso-pentanol, iso-propanol and tertiary butanol – none of which are permitted in foodstuffs.  Alcohol contents was also found to be as high as 52 per cent on products declared at 37.5 per cent.

Mr Ashmore said: “There are serious acute and chronic health impacts of these products. We were angry and appalled that they were being offered for sale, and knew that we had to act.”

Trading Standards staff then knew that they had to raise awareness among retailers and residents, particularly high-risk groups such as students, and also take robust action against those found selling counterfeit alcohol.

A multi-agency group was formed with members drawn from Sheffield Trading Standards, Sheffield Safeguarding Children’s Board, the Sheffield Drugs and Alcohol/Domestic Abuse Co-ordination Team, the licensing service and the communications service to develop and track the work.

Other key organisations such as South Yorkshire Police were involved where required. The team did market research with retailers and young people to identify what messages would be most effective.

There was a large increase in the number of premises inspections and seizures, while a large-scale publicity campaign also took place. The issue of counterfeit alcohol is also now tackled as part of a safety briefing for 3,500 children in Sheffield each year.

Simon Finney, Criminal Justice Services Manager from the Drug and Alcohol/ Domestic Abuse Co-ordination Team said: “We have been wholly supportive of Trading Standards’ work in clamping down on illicit alcohol right from the start.

“Cutting down on the availability of potentially dangerous counterfeit alcohol protects some of the more vulnerable groups in the city, including users of our drug and alcohol treatment services.

“It’s good to know that this good work has been recognised nationally.”

The number of illicit bottles of alcohol found for sale in Sheffield has decreased from 2,420 in the 2013/14 financial year to 357 in 2014/15. More importantly, no industrial alcohol was found.

Mr Ashmore added: “I hope that we are successful at the national awards in June.

“Meanwhile, we will continue to work with partners across the city to keep Sheffield’s communities safe.”