My matter, for the Health Minister, is about the general lack of success and enthusiasm of Victorian health officials to curtail illegal tobacco retailing.
Overall, the problems associated with this illicit trade have been worsening for some time – generally because the repeated increases in excises, other taxes and regulations on cigarette companies have made tobacco one of Australia’s highest taxed commodities.
As a pointer to that: in its most recent annual report on this activity across Australia, KPMG says that 2.1 million kilograms of illicit tobacco (that’s more than 14% of the country’s entire tobacco market) were consumed in 2018.
It has therefore become an item of choice not only for buyers but also many serious criminals, with huge profits to be made especially from tax evasion and further organised crime.
Typically, ‘chop chop’ and foreign cigarettes can also frequently be sold at grossly reduced prices, with law-abiding businesses drastically undercut in the process.
There are some stories of successful raids on it in Victoria. However, almost all of them are led by Federal authorities, and very few occur at the point of sale itself.
In fact, there is a common belief among retailers that the sale of illegal tobacco is going so badly unchecked, often in plain sight, that black market retailers now even outnumber the legal ones in many locations.
That’s obviously particularly disappointing at a State level, given the confirmation provided by Australian Border Force Assistant Commissioner, Sharon Huey, at a 2019 Senate inquiry that (quote) “state and territory health and policing authorities (have) responsibility for compliance action … regarding the sale of illicit tobacco by retailers”.
In turn, as a local council employee also confirmed to The Warrnambool Standard in July 2019, (quote) “council officers, under guidance from DHHS, are advised not to undertake investigation of illicit tobacco complaints without first seeking assistance from DHHS”.
Given that so much attention and effort has historically been invested into reducing smoking, it is actually puzzling that so little is apparently being done, comparatively, to curtail the prolific sale of illicit tobacco products.
Principally on behalf of numerous hard-working small business constituents who are being financially ruined by the rampant, seemingly unchecked, spread of illegal tobacco: the action I therefore seek is an explanation of what actions the Andrews Government is currently taking in relation to this illicit trade.
In addition, we would like to know what the Government will specifically do to tackle this problem throughout the remainder of this term of Parliament as well.