One of the world’s most prolific counterfeit tobacco machines has been seized by authorities in Europe, in what is being hailed as the “biggest victory” against the illicit trade in a decade.

Machine 18 is thought to have created seven billion fake UK cigarettes in the last 10 years, producing mainly counterfeit versions of Imperial Tobacco’s Superkings and Regal brands.

With the help of Imperial Tobacco’s illicit trade detectives, customs officials seized the machine in Hungary while it was being moved by gangs to a new base in Bulgaria. Before this, the machine is believed to have been based in the Moldovan breakaway state of Transnistria.

Each counterfeit cigarette has its own ‘fingerprint’ which links it to a specific machine. Imperial believes there are around 30 other such machines currently in use by criminal gangs worldwide.

The Bulgarian nationals behind machine 18 are still at large, however Imperial claims it has now built up a “host of information” on their criminal network.

Counterfeit UK cigarette brands are typically moved under cover to ports in Western Europe before being shipped to UK ports. Large seizures of machine 18 products have been made by customs officials in Liverpool, Felixstowe and Calais.