An operation to disrupt the sale and supply of illegal tobacco in Bristol and Somerset, which visited retail premises, led to the arrests of two men and two women, and uncovered more than 1.2 million cigarettes and 244 kilos of hand-rolling tobacco, all believed to be illicit.

Officers from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), with support from Bristol Trading Standards, Devon and Somerset Trading Standards and North Somerset Trading Standards, visited 50 retail premises and self storage units between Wednesday 13 July and Friday 15 July.

The visits, part of HMRC’s multi-agency activity, led to suspected illegal tobacco products being seized from 16 premises in Bristol, Chard, Taunton and Bridgwater. This included:

In Bristol:

• 824,829 cigarettes, with an estimated £264,770 duty and VAT evaded;

• 55.35 kilos of hand-rolling tobacco, with an estimated £13,505 duty and VAT evaded;

• 100 litres of spirits, with an estimated £1,287 duty and VAT evaded.

In Somerset:

• 430,060 cigarettes, with an estimated £138,049 duty and VAT evaded;

• 188.9 kilos of hand-rolling tobacco, with an estimated £46,092 duty and VAT evaded.

John Cooper, assistant director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “The sale of illegal tobacco will not be tolerated by us or our partner agencies. Disrupting criminal trade is at the heart of our strategy to clampdown on the illicit tobacco market, which costs the UK around £2bn a year. This is theft from the taxpayer and undermines legitimate traders.

“We encourage anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco to contact the Customs Hotline on 0800 595000.”

Councillor Roger Croad, Devon County Council’s cabinet member responsible for Devon and Somerset Trading Standards, said: "Trading Standards are determined to crack down on the sale and supply of illegal tobacco. These are serious criminal offences. Illegal sales of tobacco in the South West have a huge impact on people’s health.

"It is one of our top priorities for action, not only because smoking remains one of the UK’s biggest causes of premature death but we also know that the availability of cheap, illegal tobacco makes it harder for people to give up smoking.”

Councillor David Hall, Somerset County Council’s deputy leader, said: “All tobacco is harmful but illegal tobacco poses an additional threat to our children and communities because it is sold at pocket money prices by criminals who are not interested in asking for proof of age.

“Our officers routinely act on information we receive, and work with partner agencies including HMRC as they did in this case, so I would encourage consumers to continue to report those involved in selling illicit tobacco because their valuable information can significantly aid our investigations.”

Councillor Fi Hance, cabinet member with responsibility for Trading Standards at Bristol City Council, said: “Our trading standards officers are working hard with various partners to keep illegal, unregulated tobacco off the streets. They are not subject to the same controls as legal products so their impact on people’s health can be even worse than ordinary tobacco.”