Circulation of illegal cigarettes in Australia a growing concern for authorities, with number of illicit sticks that customs officials have seized at borders and extent of crops uncovered by other authorities growing in recent years

, June 17, 2014 () – THE circulation of illegal cigarettes is a growing concern for authorities, with the number of illicit sticks Customs has seized at borders and the extent of crops uncovered by authorities on the ground growing in recent years.

According to Customs and Border Protection, the number of illegal cigarette “sticks” seized has swollen from 50 million five years ago to 200 million last financial year. During the same period the number of annual detections of illegal hauls at borders grew from 33 to 76 annually.

“Detection figures over this year, as well as the previous two years, indicate a gradual increase in detections of illicit cigarettes and a corresponding decrease in detections of loose tobacco,” a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman said.

The Australian Taxation Office, which is responsible for policing domestically grown and produced cigarettes, said it had last month conducted the nation’s largest seizure of illegally grown tobacco.

The ATO and the Australian Federal Police raided a 20ha rural site about 20km from Melbourne’s city centre, locating 350,000 mature tobacco plants worth an estimated $15 million.

Last October the AFP, as part of the Trident Taskforce, announced it had seized 71 million tonnes of tobacco and 80 million sticks in “one of the biggest organised illicit tobacco importation syndicates in the country’s history”.

That taskforce uncovered a large-scale organised crime syndicate had imported the tobacco from Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and “other overseas locations”.

The ATO, which was only responsible for tobacco products grown and manufactured in Australia, said the vast bulk of illegal products was imported.

According to figures from Customs, there were 66 detections of illegal tobacco importations in the nine months to March, putting borders seizures in line to beat the 76 detections last year, the highest in at least six years.

While the numbers of detections and cigarette sticks ceased are growing solidly, the tonnage of “equivalent tobacco weight” seized has remained relatively constant.

The Customs spokeswoman said this represented “changes in the nature of the tobacco market” and as criminals sought higher returns offered by cigarettes.The ATO said it had been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia since 2006.

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