A lorry driver who smuggled more than 147 million cigarettes, worth an estimated £32m in lost duty, into the UK hidden behind crates of rotting pears, has been jailed for almost seven years.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers foiled Hans Verhoeven’s plan in July 2014 when they stopped him at The Junction 26 Truck Stop, off the M25 near Waltham Abbey, in Essex. The 45-year-old told officers he was transporting fruit and bread but when they opened the container they found 7.4 million non-UK duty paid cigarettes worth £1.58m in evaded excise duty.

Verhoeven was arrested and later admitted making at least 18 smuggling runs in the past, each time carrying a similar load which was packed behind crates of pears.

Verhoeven, who runs a transport company from Leuven, Belgium, claimed he was approached to do the runs by people who knew he had financial problems, and was told he could make up to 15,000 euros per trip.

Four months after his first arrest, and still on bail, Verhoeven was stopped again at the Port of Dover. While Verhoeven’s vehicle was genuinely transporting cheese, paperwork found in his cab linked him to a countryman’s lorry that was stopped at the same time, containing 8.1 illicit million cigarettes, hidden behind apples, evading £1.75m in duty.

The other driver was cleared of any knowledge, but following this incident, Verhoeven was charged with three counts of the fraudulent evasion of excise duty on more than 147 million non-UK duty paid cigarettes, worth an estimated £32m in lost duty. He was remanded in custody for breaching his bail conditions and on November 5 he was jailed for a total 82 months, after pleading guilty at an earlier hearing.

Stuart Taylor, assistant director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “Verhoeven smuggled huge quantities of cigarettes into the UK, costing the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds in lost duty, money that should have been providing vital public services.

“These offences have a devastating impact on honest retailers who struggle to compete with the black market in illicit cigarettes and tobacco, costing the country £2.1bn in lost revenue each year.

“HMRC takes robust action to detect, disrupt and bring those responsible before the courts and will not cease in its efforts to track down cigarette smugglers and stop their activities. Anyone with information about smuggling can contact the Customs hotline on 0800 595000.”