CUSTOMS officials have seized more than a million cigarettes smuggled into the North-East in the past fortnight.

The tobacco, which would have been sold at knock-down prices in the run-up to Christmas, is worth more than £200,000.

The cigarettes were seized at Newcastle Airport. Customs officials at the airport say they have been stunned by a series of huge hauls.

One passenger returning from Tenerife was caught carrying 37,000 cigarettes.

Steve Brassington, head of detection at HM Revenue and Customs, said smugglers tended to target regional airports, believing them to have less security.

He said: "In the last 16 days, HM Revenue and Customs officers at Newcastle Airport have intercepted more than a million contraband cigarettes.

"Smuggling gangs assume, and rightly so, that customs will have a big presence at big national airports and ports, so they go through the regional gateways because they think there will be a smaller presence, but we have a strong customs presence.

"Smuggling is a year-round problem, but there are peaks and troughs. Christmas time and in the height of summer tend to be these peaks."

Officials also said that many cigarettes being brought back were counterfeit and contained dangerous chemicals. Manufactured abroad at a fraction of the price, they can be sold for as little as £2 a packet, making them easily affordable to children.

Money made by smugglers is often traced to international crime gangs, who use the profits to fund other illegal activities such as drugs and prostitution rackets.