From: ABC News (Australia)
Illegal tobacco seized in ATO raids
An estimated 20 tonnes of tobacco has been seized after a series of raids on greenhouses in Sydney’s west.
The seizures come as the tobacco industry warns the Government’s plain packaging laws and high excise taxes will lead to a growth in the black market – a claim rejected by public health experts.
Australia’s commercial tobacco-growing industry shut down in 2006, but Australian Tax Office deputy commissioner Michael Cranston says there are a few people in Sydney’s west who appear intent on growing their own and selling it.
“There was an estimated amount of up to 20 tonnes seized today by the Australian Taxation Office from 12 greenhouses in Western Sydney,” he said.
“Twenty tonnes would have an estimated excise value of about $5 million.”
The ATO has conducted six similar raids since the industry was shut down, and Mr Cranston says it is an ongoing concern.
“We work with the community in relation to obtaining intelligence, we work very closely with law enforcement,” he said.
“Today’s seizure was a result of finding a particular truck that had tobacco and the operation then led us to these greenhouses.
“Other times we actually conduct aerial surveillance on properties of high risk to also look for illegally-grown tobacco.”
The tobacco industry is also worried about counterfeit cigarettes cutting into its bottom line.
British American Tobacco spokesman Scott McIntyre says cigarettes are now so expensive that more people have been tempted to sell cheaper counterfeits.
He claims the problem will only get worse with government-mandated plain packaging.
“Over the last three years we have seen illegal tobacco grow 150 per cent in Australia,” he said.
“Now it equates to around 16 per cent of the legal market and with the Government moving towards plain packaging, we’ll see a situation where counterfeit cigarettes become much easier to produce, because the packets will all look exactly the same and they will be harder to spot.
“Over the last few years the Government has continually increased excise on tobacco which has forced prices up, which has now made it more lucrative for organised criminals to sell this sort of stuff.”
But anti-smoking advocates say the smoking industry’s numbers are wrong.
Professor Simon Chapman, from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, says the Government’s numbers show that illegal tobacco is not an extensive problem, and not a good enough reason for the Government to change its mind about plain packaging.
“Just this week the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released their latest national survey of smoking in this country, and they found that only 1.5 per cent of smokers used illegal tobacco on more than half the occasions which they smoked,” he said.
“Now this compares to the nonsense which is being peddled by the tobacco industry saying that one-in-six cigarettes which are being smoked today are illegally obtained.”