A SUSPECTED £12million counterfeit tobacco operation which included a factory in Lancashire has been smashed by customs investigators.

Tax officials have quizzed three men, one each from Chorley, Blackburn and Burnley, after a raid on unnamed premises in Nelson.

More than 50 tonnes of illicit rolling tobacco was impounded after the operation which also saw another building in the Preston area searched.

Customs chiefs said more than £50,000 in cash, fake packaging and shredding, cutting and drying machinery were also seized during 17 co-ordinated raids in Lancashire and Scotland.

Specially-trained detection dogs were used by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), in the joint operation with various police forces and Home Office immigration enforcers.

Customs bosses said a Blackburn man, aged 56, a Burnley man, 51, and a 60-year-old Chorley man were arrested, questioned and released on bail until August.

Six other alleged accomplices, aged from 28 to 70, from the Preston, Glasgow, Rochdale and Manchester areas, were also arrested and bailed as part of the same probe.

Cllr Eileen Ansar, who represents Nelson’s Clover Hill ward, near to where the raid took place, said: “This is the kind of operation which there should be even more of in my opinion.

“It’s the reputable traders who always lose out in these circumstances and I fully support this investigation.”

Trading standards chiefs have conducted a series of raids across East Lancashire in recent years and prosecuted dozens of shopkeepers caught with bogus tobacco and shisha products.

Last May, nearly 6,000 packs of counterfeit cigarettes were found during a series of raids in Burnley.

Some were copies of famous brands while others were illegal foreign imports, without the appropriate health warnings.

Tony Capon, the assistant director of HMRC’s fraud investigation service, said: “Tobacco fraud is a highly organised crime which costs the UK £2.4billion a year in lost taxes.

“In addition to significant revenue loss, illicit tobacco products damage legitimate businesses and the trade is unregulated making cheaper tobacco more readily available to the young and vulnerable.

“We are determined to disrupt the manufacture and distribution of illicit tobacco across the UK and will continue to work with other enforcement agencies to stamp it out.”