Monday, January 15, 2024

Crackdown slated for $3 billion illegal tobacco trade


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Firefighters dodge fireworks as another Melbourne tobacco store set alight

Crackdown slated for $3 billion illegal tobacco trade

Australia will crackdown on the illegal tobacco trade, with a $188.5 million funding boost designed to bring together the nation’s law enforcement agencies to target its sale and importation.

Clawing back lost taxes and stemming the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses are behind the move, along with a push to suppress criminal syndicates involved in the illicit trade, especially in Victoria where a wave of arson attacks has plagued Melbourne and beyond.   

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has announced that Australian Border Force (ABF) will be given extra funding over the next four years, with the black market in tobacco now estimated to be costing the government more than $3 billion in lost revenue every year.

The ABF will lead commonwealth, state and territory agencies in a co-ordinated approach to disrupt and deter and stop the sale of illegally imported cigarettes, Dr Chalmers said on Sunday.

Under the funding, intelligence gathering will be improved and agencies bolstered in order to target crime gangs.

The government will also invest in investigations harnessing artificial intelligence, to seize and destroy illegal tobacco.

Dr Chalmers said the money would be aimed at deterring illegal tobacco use and distribution Australia-wide and send a clear message to crooks that their activities constituted a “serious tax crime”.

“Illegal tobacco is more than a problem for the budget, it’s a health challenge and it’s a challenge to our border security,” he said.

“This new model strengthens our existing efforts by working in partnership with the states and territories.”

ABF Commissioner Michael Outram said the agency was committed to maintaining its hard-line stance on illicit tobacco.

“This funding will enhance and modernise our ability to stop illicit tobacco at the border and before it ever reaches our shores, air or seaports,” he said.

“We know illicit tobacco trade is systematically tied to serious and organised criminal groups, and we will work hand in hand with domestic and international partners to disrupt their activities.”

The announcement comes a day after federal and Victorian police blamed criminal syndicates fighting for control of the state’s illegal tobacco trade for a long-running series of arson attacks.

A crime scene at a tobacco shop in Altona
More than 30 Victorian tobacco shops have been targeted by arsonists in the past year. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

The firebombings have generated headlines since early 2023, with more than 30 outlets targeted between March and October alone.

In a breakthrough announced by detectives on Saturday, five people, including a senior Finks Outlaw Motorcycle Gang figure and two others believed to be patched Finks members, have been charged with numerous counts of criminal damage by fire.

Firefighters also rushed to the scene of a blaze at a tobacco shop at Craigieburn in Melbourne’s north in the early hours of Sunday that residents say coincided with several explosions.

The ABF said in November it had recorded more than 120,000 detections resulting in the seizure of 1.7 billion illegal cigarettes and 867 tonnes of loose leaf ‘chop chop’ in the past financial year.

Eleven properties in Queensland and NSW were raided in October, with 2.8 million cigarettes, 380kg of chop chop and $5.3m worth of nicotine vapes found.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler says reducing the availability of illicit tobacco will also be critical to reducing the number of people who smoke.

“We cannot stand by and allow another generation of people to be lured into addiction and suffer the enormous health, economic and social consequences,” he said.

An estimated 50 people die in Australia every day of a smoking related illness.