The illegal supply of hand-rolling tobacco from the Continent poses a bigger problem for Customs than the smuggling of wine and beer, according to senior officers.
Jim Williams, assistant collector for Customs' Southern England division, whose branch covers Newhaven, Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth and Southampton, described bootlegging of hand-rolling tobacco as "more worrying than wine and beer because it's fast-growing, taking in a lot of money and is a more serious substance than alcohol".
In the 12 months to the end of July this year, more than two-thirds of bootlegging seizures involved tobacco - nearly all of them of hand-rolling brands. Wine and beer accounted for less than one-third.
The Customs spokesman said that in those 12 months, 3,301 seizures were made, of which 2,227 were tobacco, "almost solely, hand-rolling tobacco". By value, bootlegging of roll-up and pipe tobacco is also more than equal to beer, wine and spirits. Seizures of tobacco were worth pounds 3.8m compared with pounds 3.1m for alcohol.
High price differences between Britain and the Continent make hand-rolling tobacco more attractive than cigarettes. Greater duties here mean that a 50g packet of a leading brand costs pounds 2.25 in France, compared with more than pounds 6 in this country. "The profit margin on a vanful of tobacco is higher than on a vanful of alcohol," the spokesman said.
Mr Williams, who was speaking at the weekend's International Symposium on Economic Crime in Cambridge, said that since 1 April this year , his officers had seized 800 kilos of loose tobacco. "There is a big market for it here - people bring it across and sell it for pounds 1.50 - pounds 2 less than the normal pounds 6 price."
The illicit trade is highly organised with pubs and clubs the favourite outlets. Unlike cigarettes, said Mr Williams, hand-rolling tobacco "does not crush and can be strapped to the body. It is also cheaper, which makes it more popular".