A £5m nationwide illegal tobacco ring has been smashed open following the discovery of an eight ton stash of raw tobacco in Preston.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers say a major tobacco fraud has been foiled, with arrests made in Lancashire, Essex and Bury, Greater Manchester.
The haul in Preston, valued around £1.8 million in evaded duty and tax, will be burned to help fuel the National Grid.
It was discovered at an undisclosed location in November but details were kept under wraps until now, due to an ongoing probe.
This week HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers seized cash, chemical agents, counterfeit packaging and tobacco packing machinery after raiding a farm in Essex as well as a premises in Blackburn and four near Bury two weeks ago.
The officers dismantled a tobacco processing plant in Essex and seized over three tonnes of raw tobacco that was in the process of being converted into counterfeit hand rolling tobacco from an industrial unit in the Bury area.
The estimated loss to the Exchequer is around £5m in unpaid duty and VAT.
Sandra Smith, Assistant Director of Criminal Investigations, said: “It is clear from the chemicals and machinery we found that this gang planned to produce and sell illegal tobacco products across the UK.
“Illicit tobacco factories hidden in our communities are packaging low quality tobacco and I’d urge people to be wary.
“Cheap tobacco may seem like a bargain, but there are no controls over what is mixed into the counterfeit product and by buying it smokers are funding international organised crime gangs.
“Anyone with information about the transport, storage or sale of cheap cigarettes or tobacco in the North West or further afield, can help us by calling the Customs hotline on 0800 59 5000.”
It comes 16 months after an illegal tobacco factory potentially worth £500,000 in evaded tax and duty, was exposed in an industrial unit in Burscough, thought to have links to Hungarian nationals.
The Evening Post’s Don’t Let Them Make a Packet Campaign, has lifted the lid on how the county’s criminal underworld is profiting from smuggling illicit tobacco and selling it - often to the most vulnerable members of our communities.
It is peddled in disadvantaged communities or to young people whom criminals know often cannot afford full priced duty paid cigarettes.
Deprived communities have a higher risk of dying from diseases triggered by smoking, and the availability of cheap tobacco adds to the problem by reducing the incentive for people to quit.
It also provides unfair competition for legitimate shopkeepers, some of whom face being put out of business by street dealers.