Time to butt out Victoria’s illegal tobacco trade

Media statement

August 19, 2021

Tania Maxwell MP wants the state government to crack down hard on Victoria’s widespread illegal retail tobacco trade by shifting compliance responsibility from local council environmental health officers to law enforcement.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said Victoria Police or a new agency should instead be given robust powers to disrupt and halt illicit production and under-the-counter retail sales estimated to cost Australia more than $820 million a year in unpaid tobacco tax.

“It’s a very shady trade that also costs our communities, the state and the nation in ways that go well beyond lost revenue,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Law enforcement has established strong links between the smuggling and sale of illicit tobacco and organised crime syndicates.

“Most concerning to me is how profits are funnelled to other serious criminal pursuits, including child sexual exploitation, terrorism, drug, firearm and human trafficking, cyber-crime and violence.

“As Illicit Tobacco Taskforce commander Greg Lindsell told The Sydney Morning Herald just a few weeks ago: ‘Removing illicit tobacco from crop to shop creates a level playing field and helps to stop organised crime syndicates from funding other activities’.”

“It’s an insidious trade across our communities, too – ranging from the waterfront, where Australian Border Force every year intercepts millions of illegal cigarettes, to more than 400 shopfronts throughout Victoria selling contraband tobacco products.

“Just this year there have been seizures of illegal cigarettes, loose tobacco or crops in the ground in Euroa, Shepparton, Mooroopna, Yarrawonga and Beverford.

“In March, a joint taskforce of NSW and Victoria Police, the Tax Office and Border Force raided three properties either side of the border on the lower Murray and seized 45 hectares of illegally-grown tobacco worth up to $84 million in excise payable to the federal government had it been sold legally.

“But at a retail level it’s local councils that are currently responsible for checking that cigarettes and other tobacco products sold in local shops have been lawfully produced and manufactured.

“This means environmental health officers are usually those carrying out inspections.

“But they have no training in surveillance, search and seizure and do so at considerable personal risk because of the very nature of this black-market trade.

“Local government also tells me that there are no substantial infringements that would be of any real consequence to an offender, yet one council reported it spent 12 months and $50,000 to get a conviction.”

Ms Maxwell said Victoria and Queensland were the only Australian jurisdictions without a regulated licencing scheme for the sale of tobacco.

“Victoria regulates gaming and the sale of alcohol and firearms that enables the state to decide who are fit and proper people to conduct these activities, the conditions by which they must operate and the penalties for breaching these,” she said.

“But we stop short of doing the same for those who deal in tobacco products.

“This is completely at odds with the huge investment we’ve made in public health campaigns to limit and reduce smoking and the cost to the health system and people’s lives, estimated at $137 billion by the National Drug Research Institute.

“By strengthening enforcement and introducing a licencing scheme with robust powers, Victoria’s tobacco control system would better align with those in other states and at a national level, provide effective support for legitimate tobacco retailers, bolster public health messaging, minimise harm and rein in crime.

“I’ve had productive conversations about these proposals with Health Minister Martin Foley, Local Government Minister Shaun Leane and acting Police Minister Danny Pearson in recent weeks.”

CIGARETTE IMAGE: Australian Border Force