THE North-East could be slowly ridding itself of its reputation for being the country's top blackspot for cigarette smuggling, it emerged yesterday.

After several years as the top regional target for organised crime gangs, customs officials are celebrating the success of a determined crackdown which has seen the impact on retailers decline.

Figures from the Independent Retail News publication show the North-East has been replaced by the Midlands as the worst-affected region in terms of loss of turnover for tobacconists.

The news follows the decision by Customs and Excise officials to make the region the focus of its first publicity campaign, designed to make smugglers realise they face heavy punishment.

Officers have also stepped up operations in the North-East by carrying out a series of successful raids.

The region's spokesman for Customs and Excise, Rob Hastings-Trew, said yesterday: "We were very heartened by the figures."

The reversal in fortunes could be attributed to many factors, he said, adding: "It could be that we are seeing an increase in the price that smuggled cigarettes are costing.

"Our information shows that it is now costing about £30 for 200 cigarettes, whereas in the past, it was £25, which could indicate that there is a scarcity."

Customs officers are also targeting individuals with no connection to organised crime, many of whom want cheap cigarettes to sell at home.

Last week, Darlington magistrates jailed a North-East man who had tried to smuggle 28,000 cigarettes through Teesside Airport.

Colin Baxter, 27, of Lambton Centre, Washington, Wearside, was sentenced to three months in prison, in a move magistrates said was designed to act as a deterrent.

Mr Hastings-Trew said: "Previously, we might have restricted our actions just to the seizure of the goods, but we now have a more robust prosecution policy."