A criminal gang who attempted to dupe the authorities by smuggling a vast haul of illicit tobacco into the UK under the guise of babies’ toys has been jailed.

The seven men tried to smuggle more than 20 million cigarettes from Dubai by describing them as babies’ toys on shipping documents.

They were foiled when a covert surveillance operation caught them unloading half of the haul at a warehouse in Upminster. The total duty evaded is estimated as £3.3m.

Paul Barton, assistant director of criminal Investigation for HMRC, said: “If these criminals had not been stopped they would have flooded local markets with not only the 20 million illicit cigarettes we seized but would have gone on to smuggle in many more.

“HMRC is determined to eradicate this form of criminality and raise awareness of the devastating effect on our communities, including legitimate retailers having to compete with black market goods. Tobacco smuggling costs the country around £2 billion in lost revenue each year – money that could be funding vital public services.”

The men were all charged with conspiracy to evade excise duty chargeable on the importation of cigarettes contrary to section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and jailed for between four and two years.