Illegal tobacco with a street value of almost £2m has been seized after police raided a disused property in Blackpool town centre.
Officers who stormed into the suspected cannabis factory on Regent Road got more than they bargained for when they stumbled across 2.2 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco – as well as the specialist machinery used to process it.
Instead of illegal drugs, police arriving at the property were faced with mounds of raw tobacco, which was likely smuggled from abroad and destined for the resort’s streets.
Although nobody was arrested, investigators believe an organised gang behind the suspected tobacco factory would have offered the product to local shopkeepers, selling it for a huge profit.
The tobacco is thought to have an estimated market value of £1.8m although criminals would probably have sold it at a discounted rate to entice retailers.
A HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) spokesman said: “It appears this was a well organised operation which has been severely disrupted by our intervention and seizure of all tobacco and machinery on site.”
The property, just yards from Blackpool Tower, was empty when police arrived and an investigation is now underway.
The raid took place on Saturday. Police found piles of tobacco, in various stages of processing, on the floor of the building.
HMRC said it also recovered shredding, cutting and drying machinery from the scene.
At this stage in the investigation, there is no suggestion the tobacco was counterfeit although work will now take place to analyse the purity of the haul.
Instead HMRC believes the criminal gang has illegally avoided paying duty on the tobacco, possibly by smuggling it into the country.
In some cases, investigators have found crooks cut the pure tobacco with substances ranging from potentially lethal chemicals to sawdust in order to make it stretch further.
A spokesman added: “The majority of retailers are law abiding traders. However, there are a number who believe they can make easy money by selling illicit tobacco products under the counter.
“A shopkeeper who sells tobacco without an authentic UK duty paid mark can lose their Lotto terminal, be fined up to £5,000, have their vehicle seized and be prevented from selling any tobacco products for up to six months.
“We would urge shopkeepers in the area not to be tempted to buy any cheap tobacco offered to them.”
Tobacco fraud is said to cost the UK Government £2bn a year in lost taxes.