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Around 1.8m cigarettes destined for NZ's Chinese community, $2m cash seized by Customs as part of six-month investigation

An Auckland businessman has been arrested while attempting to flee the country after around 1.8 million smuggled cigarettes and over $2 million in cash was seized as part of a six-month New Zealand Customs investigation, the agency said today.

Cash laid out at Customs following Operation Whitethorn. Source: New Zealand Customs

Multiple properties, two luxury cars and bank accounts have also been seized by police as part of the investigation.

He was arrested by Customs investigators at Auckland Airport last Wednesday, and has since been charged with defrauding Customs revenue.

The man may face a maximum of five years in jail and/or a $20,000 fine as part of Customs Act changes enacted last month, Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry said.

It's understood the cigarettes were being sold to the Chinese community and businesses over a number of years and that the cartons had been brought into the country over time in shipping containers, Mr Berry said.

The investigation is ongoing and further charges and arrests are likely.

A crate holding some of the Chinese branded cigarettes seized by Customs New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS

The man was arrested as part of Operation Whitethorn, which began after Customs identified a company suspected of smuggling cigarettes inside sea containers last October.

A recent inspection saw 340,000 cigarettes inside 12 metal cabinets seized.

Each crate holds 900 cartons of cigarettes. Source: 1 NEWS

Customs last week conducted search warrants at multiple Auckland homes, where they located around 1.5 million cigarettes and five garbage bags filled with cash.

Cash located by investigators following a warrant. Source: New Zealand Customs

Mr Berry said the agency has seized what is believed to be the country's largest tax evasion case involving smuggled cigarettes.

It also marks the first time Customs has partnered up with the Police Asset Recovery Unit to target those involved in the fraud.

The businessman will appear before the Auckland District Court on December 14.

Cigarettes seized by Customs New Zealand can be seen sitting on crates. Source: 1 NEWS