Distinct from vaping laws in Australia, organised crimes are involving themselves with illegal Tobacco trade to fund other illegal activities.
Approximately 16 tonnes of tobacco have been destroyed after an illegal plantation was raided in Murga.
The quantity of tobacco was estimated to be worth more than $28 million at the rural property making it one of the biggest police busts in NSW History.
A joint investigation between the Australian Taxation office (ATO) and NSW Police was launched last year following an increasing trend of organised crime and in particular the illegal growing of the illicit crop.
Authorities intervened the property, locating, seized and destroyed the crop however no arrests were made with investigations set to continue.
Detective Superintendent Stuart Cadden highlighted that the destroying of the illicit plantation would contribute to supply chain issues for and ultimately reduce profits from organised crime.
“The seizure of this tobacco has resulted in the disruption of the syndicate’s supply chain, which in turn means the profits aren’t funnelled into organised crime,” Detective Superintendent Stuart Cadden said.
He also highlighted the extent of the issue, alluding that organised crime is still a serious problem with criminals having various avenues to engage in illegal behaviour.
“The tobacco is simply one source of income that organised criminals use to fund their other illicit activities,” he said.
Detective Cadden also emphasised that the police will continue to crack down on illegal operations to reduce harm for society.
“The NSW Police Force, the AFP, the ACIC, and all our other partner agencies will continue to conduct operations targeting illicit activities. Collaborative efforts are necessary to target any criminal activity which brings potential harm to our community.” He also said.
Australian Border Force (ABF) Superintendent Sasha Barclay there is an increasing trend to growing illicit tobacco crops.
“What we’re seeing is more and more criminal syndicates are trying their hand at cultivation to keep up supply as ABF continues to increase the amount of illicit tobacco being detected and seized at the border,” Superintendent Barclay said.
“These criminal syndicates are sophisticated and run like a business, so they will do whatever it takes to ensure they have a supply and can continue to bring in a profit at the expense of legitimate business owners and the wider Australian community.” She said.
ATO assistant commissioner Justin Clarke said that the operations were not run by “genuine farmers or landowners but by criminals living and operating in local communities. “
“Criminals who deal in illicit tobacco pose a serious threat to the Australian community … they use their profits to fund their lifestyles and engage in criminal behaviour well beyond the sale of illicit tobacco” he said.
“Evading excise duty on tobacco costs the community millions of dollars that could be spent on essential community services.” Clarke said.
Illicit Tobacco trade legislation in Australia
Illicit tobacco farming in Australia has become a growing concern over the past few years.
According to The Australian Border Force, Between 1 January and 31 December 2021 the ABF detected 878.8 tonnes of undeclared loose-leaf tobacco and 712.7 million undeclared cigarette sticks, a 45 per cent increase on the previous year.
Illicit tobacco farming is attractive to criminal groups due to the high profits that can be made.
A media release by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) highlighted the amount of profit organised criminals make on just one container full of cigarettes, meaning that they only need one out of 30 containers to get through to still make a profit.
Organised crime syndicates, continue to coordinate these operations to fund lavish lifestyles opening other avenues for criminal behaviour.
“Whilst the profits are not as much as illicit drugs, the penalties less severe and the risk reward payoff is a lot more favourable to organised crime groups.” According to the release.
The Australian government has introduced several pieces of legislation to combat illicit tobacco farming and the trade of illegal tobacco products.
Engaging in illicit tobacco trade is a serious offence that includes the unlicensed production of tobacco plant or leaf and manufacture of tobacco products.
In 2018, the Treasury laws Amendment (illicit Tobacco Offences) Bill was passed by parliament to introduce new offences and increase penalties for those involved in the illicit tobacco trade.
These changes included the following.
- Penalties for possessing more than 2 and less than 5 kilograms of illicit tobacco include a civil fine of $27,500
- Penalties for possessing 5 kilograms or more of illicit tobacco include a criminal penalty such as prison sentence of up to 5 years or a fine between $55,000 and $275,000, or both.
- Penalties for selling or buying illicit tobacco products include a criminal conviction with a prison sentence of up to 5 years or a fine between $55,000 and $275,000, or both.
- Penalties for manufacturing or producing illicit tobacco include a criminal conviction with a prison sentence of up to 10 years or a fine between $137,500 and $412,500, or both
Also in 2018, the Customs Amendment (Illicit Tobacco Offences) Bill 2018 was passed and intends to work alongside the Treasury Laws Amendment to create a regime targeting the importation, possession, purchase, sale and production of illicit tobacco.
These changes include.
- New offences in the Customs Actfor those who are reckless as to whether importing tobacco results in the defrauding of revenue
- Allowing the ABF to investigate offences in the Treasury Bill where the origin of the illicit tobacco is unknown. This will allow opportunities to prosecute illicit tobacco offences as it will not be necessary to establish whether the illicit tobacco was imported or illegally manufactured.
These laws provide law enforcement agencies with the powers and resources to detect and seize illegal tobacco products and prosecute those involved in this damaging illegal trade.
By Alyssa Maschmedt.