Three men behind one of the largest ever single hauls of smuggled cigarettes found in the North West have been jailed this week.

The 16.5 million illegal cigarettes, hidden in a consignment of fruit, were seized by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers in the Rochdale area in December 2011.

The illegal cigarettes were uncovered at an industrial unit in the Castleton area of Rochdale. They were imported as “fruit”, with a large quantity of oranges and kiwi fruits used as a “cover load” in an attempt to conceal the smuggled tobacco.

The cigarettes seized were mainly Golden Eagle and Gold Classic brands with smaller quantities of Arden, Hoop and Regal. As well as the cigarettes, 1.3 kilos of hand rolling tobacco, 83 litres of beer, 51 litres of wine and some pharmaceutical products were seized as part of the investigation. HMRC officers also seized three vehicles and over £69,000 in cash. The seized cigarettes were recycled as fuel pellets and used to fuel the national electricity grid.

Anthony Peter Bower, 51, a bar employee from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, was sentenced to three years and nine months in jail, and Neil Michael Pickering, 36, an unemployed car paint sprayer also from Rochdale, received a sentence of three years and four months in jail. Phillip Steven Hughes, 45, from Penygroes, Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, in South Wales, was jailed for 24 weeks, suspended for two years, with a three-month curfew and compulsory attendance on a Thinking Skills programme.

The three men were arrested at the time of the seizure and all pleaded guilty to the crime, which was worth an estimated £3.2m in evaded excise duty.

Sandra Smith, assistant director, criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “Tobacco-related fraud is estimated to cost the UK economy £2bn a year in lost revenue. Don’t let criminals profit – report it. The evasion of excise duty on tobacco products is a criminal offence. If you are caught you will not only have your goods seized but you may also face prosecution and investigation of your personal or business finances.

“Anyone with information about the storage or sale of illegal tobacco in their area should contact the Customs hotline on 0800 595000.”