New Zealand's new border problem: Customs seizing around 125,000 smuggled cigarettes every month

New Zealand has a new problem at its border - cigarettes.

Customs' head of investigations says profits from selling smuggled cigarettes are estimated to be eight times more lucrative than the illegal cocaine trade. 

Customs is currently catching around 125,000 smuggled cigarettes every month - and they believe organised crime groups bringing in methamphetamine and other hard drugs are part of what's driving the increase. 

Tobacco smuggling rings have also been established in New Zealand to facilitate the importation and distribution both here and in Australia.

Boxes packed with cheap cigarettes are hidden among other cargo - such as a shipment of foot stools from China. 

"It's a lucrative market that's attracting the attention of organised crime," Customs NZ investigations manager Bruce Berry told Newshub.

"So we've got credible information that large scale, commercial-grade cigarette smuggling operators have repositioned themselves into New Zealand to facilitate importations into New Zealand and Australia.

"We've got anecdotal information that the profit margin from tobacco is eight times that of cocaine."

Australia has a dedicated illicit tobacco law enforcement group, which has made similar estimates of profit margins through black market sales. 

Two weeks ago, four-and-a-half tonnes of cigarettes and tobacco, valued at $42 million, were seized in Queensland. 

In 2018, Customs seized 1.8 million cigarettes smuggled inside sea containers. Last year, 2.2 million cigarettes were seized in a separate operation. 

"There are significant profits to be made. We do have the most expensive cigarettes in the world for legal purchase," Deborah Hart, the director of Action for Smokefree 2025 (ASH) New Zealand, told Newshub.

Customs is seizing 125,000 illegal cigarettes and 155 kilograms of loose tobacco every month. 

Seizures happen every day at the international mail centre, and weekly in air cargo. "Significant quantities" are found in sea cargo five to six times a year.

Some are even manufacturing fake versions of popular illegal imports - like the Double Happiness brand from China. 

"This person who was importing low-quality tobacco was manufacturing this particular brand of cigarette in his garage," Berry said. 

Hart says the most important thing is to reduce demand for tobacco - but she'd also like to see more resources, like X-ray machines, to help target the illicit trade.

"We've got three [machines] in the country to X-ray containers. There just needs to be a whole lot more resources put into countering the illicit trade."

Customs says the three X-ray machines used at the country's ports are just part of how they tackle the illegal trade. 

Customs also use mobile units and operate by making risk assessments and gathering intelligence. 

Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri admitted to Newshub preventing large-scale tobacco smuggling is a "challenging" problem.

However, Whaitiri had "no comment" when asked if New Zealand needs a dedicated illicit tobacco task force, like the one in Australia.