HM Revenue and Customs says it has halved the size of the UK’s illicit cigarette market and cut that for illicit hand-rolling tobacco by a third.

The agency has announced that, working with other enforcement bodies between April and September last year, it seized more than 600m illicit cigarettes and 137 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco, with a combined tax value of £232m. Almost 200 people were prosecuted and 100 convicted of tobacco excise fraud during that period.

Among those arrested was an employee of the Ugandan high commission, who was sentenced to six years in prison. The official had abused diplomatic privileges by purchasing large quantities of hand-rolling tobacco from duty free and then selling it on the black market without paying tax or duty. In total he obtained 28 tonnes of tobacco, equal to 44.8m cigarettes, which represents £4.8m in lost revenue.

In May last year, a couple from Manchester were jailed for a £3.8m excise fraud involving more than 25 tonnes of counterfeit hand-rolling tobacco. The pair were linked to more than 28 deliveries of illegal tobacco across north-west England and eight tobacco seizures in Manchester, Liverpool and the Netherlands.

They used shoes and shelves to disguise the tobacco and smuggle it into the UK.

In June 2015, a furniture importer from Brighton was sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended for two years, after a shipping container from Indonesia was intercepted. Inside, border force officers found five multicoloured fibreglass statues of Buddha that had been filled with more than 100,000 illicit cigarettes.

Law enforcement agencies are keen to emphasise that the illicit cigarette trade is not a victimless crime. A report published by HMRC last year pointed out that tobacco smuggling “undermines legitimate business and is dominated by internationally organised criminal groups often involved in other crimes such as drug smuggling and people trafficking”.

But despite the crackdown, tobacco fraud remains a significant and persistent problem. In the year 2014-15 HMRC estimates that it cost the UK £2.1bn in lost revenues.

This article was written by Jamie Doward, for The Observer on Saturday 5th March 2016 20.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010