More than 10 tonnes of illicit tobacco destined for Britain has been confiscated in Hong Kong in the past five weeks, prompting customs officials to step up co-operation with British and mainland authorities to stop the illegal trade.
The seizure of the tobacco - meant to be used in hand-rolled cigarettes - was about 10 times more than all the rolling tobacco seized in the first 11 months of last year, according to Hong Kong customs.
A senior customs officer said the tobacco was made on the mainland and could be sold for up to 22 times more than its original price, a high profit margin that was driving the illegal trade.
It would be worth an estimated HK$29 million on the Hong Kong market, according to Mark Lee Yuen-man, head of customs' cigarette investigation division.
'The seized tobacco is worth from HK$50 to HK$100 per kg, but can be sold for HK$1,100 per kg in Britain,' he said. 'The selling price is 50 per cent less than the genuine product costs in Britain.'
Investigators have learned that the illicit tobacco, packaged in bags bearing the Golden Virginia brand name, was smuggled into Hong Kong from the mainland then mailed to Britain by speed post, Lee said.
Over the past five weeks, customs officers at the airport's airmail centre have intercepted more than 600 Britain-bound parcels containing 6.7 tonnes of the tobacco.
Kong Shui-wing, deputy head of customs' revenue and general investigation bureau, said nearly 170 tobacco parcels, each weighing about 10kg, were intercepted at the airport on a single day last month.
Comparing the crackdown at the airport's airmail centre to a soccer game, Kong said: 'Our officers were just like goalkeepers trying to stop each goal as they kept shooting.'
The parcels were apparently mailed from different post offices, he said. 'We believe that a vehicle was used to go to different post offices and they [the counterfeiters] mailed several parcels at each post office,' Kong said.
To avoid detection, the parcels were declared as gifts for the Christmas and New Year's holiday. They were addressed to people in various parts of Britain, he said. 'We believe the illicit tobacco was mailed during the busy festive period in an attempt to avoid being picked up by our officers for examination.'
Kong compared the battle to stop tobacco smuggling to a 'game' of capability and intelligence between smugglers and officers
Inside each bag of tobacco was a price tag in euros. 'We believe this is a tactic counterfeiters use to make consumers think the tobacco is a parallel product from other European countries,' Kong said.
According to Hong Kong customs, another 3.5 tonnes of the tobacco was seized in two warehouses, in Kwai Chung and Tai Kok Tsui, in two raids mounted yesterday and on December 14.
Four men, including one from the mainland, were arrested during the two raids.
Price, in pounds, of a 25g bag of Golden Virginia tobacco at a British supermarket - equivalent to HK$88