THOUSANDS of packets of cigarettes have washed up on Chesil Beach.

Police and Coastguard officers arrived at the scene on Tuesday morning, along with representatives from HM Revenue and Custom.

The cigarettes are part of the cargo of cigarettes from a beached shipping container which washed up at Axmouth, Devon.

The Maritime Coastguard Agency was informed containers were lost from the ship as it crossed the Bay of Biscay in stormy conditions.

HMRC spokesman Bob Gaiger said they would be working with Dorset Police, the Coastguard, and local authorities to collect and secure the cigarettes.

Members of the public are being advised not to attend the coast in the hope of picking up some free cigarettes.

Mr Gaiger said: “There was a consignment of legitimate cigarettes being shipped from Rotterdam to Sri Lanka.

“They were washed overboard and what you have at Chesil Beach are cigarettes from this shipment that was washed overboard.”

Mr Gaiger confirmed the packets would be taken to a secure warehouse and eventually destroyed.

The owners of the consignment contacted HMRC, asking them to dispose of the cigarettes.

Mr Gaiger said: “From what I can gather they’re saturated cigarettes. You’ll hardly be able to smoke them.

“Common sense dictates really that the cigarettes are not going to be worth smoking, even if you managed to dry them out.”

Mr Gaiger advised people to leave the cigarettes where they were, but warned more could wash up in the coming days.

“That is a possibility because I think there was something like 11 million cigarettes in the shipment.

“It will be a case of whenever there’s a tide just checking the beach and recovering as many of the cigarettes as we can.”

Dorset Police’s Incident Commander Chief Inspector Dean O’Conner said: “The councils and emergency services of Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole are united in their plea to the public to think carefully about visiting the shoreline.

“The recent influx of cigarettes washed up onto the beaches may tempt some people to venture out in search of free tobacco but they will be disappointed because the cargo – lost overboard during storms earlier this month – has been badly damaged and is beyond use.

“Our main fear is for the safety of the public – landslips over the past few weeks remain a real risk and people should not put themselves at increased risk.

“Furthermore, the washed up cargo remains the property of the cargo owners. Local councils and beach owners are working together with the HMRC and Border Force to arrange for the cigarettes to be cleared up, collected and accounted for.”

Onlookers Louise and Mark Excell, from Weymouth, said they were surprised by the number of packets that had washed up.

Mrs Excell said: “It’s a bit strange to see all the cigarette packets all along the beach.”

Describing the clean-up operation, she added: “It is going to be a mammoth task especially without anybody coming to pinch them.”

The Maritime Coastguard Agency’s aerial surveillance aircraft scanned the coastline on Tuesday morning off Portland as a precaution in case other containers were in the area.

Thousands of packets have already been recovered from beaches in Devon.

Ships passing through the English Channel have been warned to report any sightings of loose containers.

Members of the public who spot any beached containers are asked to call the coastguard – although most are believed to be empty and have sunk 75 miles off Land’s End.

Simon Porter, MCA counter pollution and salvage officer, said: “We have been carrying out extensive searches over the last four days and spotted three containers, one of which has since come ashore and the other two are mid-Channel.

“We are working with Maersk to ensure they recover their containers.”

The Beer Coastguard Rescue Team, police and council officials spent yesterday at Axmouth beach and the container has been cordoned off.