Criminal groups farm illicit tobacco as authorities confiscate imports
As authorities target illicit tobacco imports, criminal groups are turning their attention to farming their own crops across regional Australia.
Illicit Tobacco Taskforce Australian Border Force Commander Greg Linsdell said that in the past 12 months there had been a significant increase in seizures involving the domestic growth of illicit tobacco as criminal groups look to maintain their supply after COVID-19 impacted imports.
Some of the seized cigarettes in Perth.Credit:ABF
“My message for those communities where illicit tobacco is grown is that these are not struggling farmers who are trying to make few dollars, these are people coming in and exploiting regional areas, taking water, damaging soil, using foreign labour and giving nothing back to the community,” Commander Linsdell said.
He added that foreign workers were often offered little to no protection if anything went wrong and put their visas in jeopardy by working on illicit tobacco farms.
Image of a tobacco plant found during a raid on an illicit tobacco farm in Kyalite, NSW, this year.Credit:ATO
The Illicit Tobacco Taskforce is a multi-agency group that combines the operational, investigative and intelligence capabilities of the ABF, Australian Tax Office, Department of Home Affairs, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
The number of seizures each financial year has increased from eight in 2018-19 to 23 for 2020-21, data from the ATO shows.
ATO Assistant Commissioner Ian Read said criminal syndicates used the proceeds of illegal tobacco sales to fund their criminal behaviour and it deprived local communities of taxes used to fund roads and schools.
“Retailers choosing to become involved in the sale of illegal tobacco gain an unfair price advantage over small business,” he said. “Removing illicit tobacco from crop to shop creates a level playing field and also helps to stop organised crime syndicates from funding other activities,” Mr Read said.
He urged the community to report any activity that could indicate the production of illicit tobacco, including intense labour production between November and May, suspicious inquiries about land for lease, unexplained use of water resources or large crops of leafy plants that resemble cabbage and have pink flowers.
Growing tobacco in Australia has been illegal for more than a decade and carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Authorities are also contending with huge illicit tobacco importation attempts. In the most recent fiscal year until the end of May, the ABF seized 512 million cigarettes, a 36 per cent increase from the previous year. The force also seized 748 tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco, compared to 167 tonnes the previous year.
The 2020-21 haul is equivalent to an estimated $1.7 billion in evaded duty – a record amount, compared to an estimated $621 million in evaded duty from the previous year.
During the final week of May, the ABF intercepted almost 10 tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco and more than 7.3 million cigarettes via sea cargo.
“This has been recognised as an opportunity for serious organised crime groups in Australia to make a lot of money … they can bring cigarettes into Australia for a lower price and sell it here on the illicit tobacco black market,” Mr Linsdell said.
Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews said the federal government remained committed to stopping the illegal trade at the border.
“Every time someone uses illicit tobacco, they’re denying the community legitimate tax revenue that funds our schools, hospitals, and roads,” she said. “They’re also playing into the hands of serious and organised criminals, who often import illicit tobacco and sell it to fund importations of harder drugs.
“In addition, we’re continuing to consider ways to strengthen Australia’s response, including the feasibility of track and trace technology that can provide a guarantee to consumers that what they’re using is legal and legitimate.”
NSW Police Detective Acting Superintendent Grant Taylor said the State Crime Command’s Criminal Groups Squad investigated all matters of serious and organised crime.
“Part of the strategies of the squad is to conduct proactive investigations to disrupt criminal groups profiting from crimes such as the illicit tobacco market,” he said.
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