The ABF-led Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF) and partner agencies have shattered a large scale illegal tobacco syndicate in a series of raids across QLD and NSW in one of the biggest busts of its kind in recent years.
The ABF-led investigation commenced in October 2022 following intelligence into a sophisticated illicit tobacco network under Operation HARVESTHOME. The network is suspected of illegal tobacco importation, distribution, storage, transport and money laundering representing a significant threat to the Australian community.
The criminal network has acquired a large number of tobacco retail outlets primarily in QLD, with a growing number spreading across other states and territories, all suspected of selling illegally imported tobacco and nicotine vaping products.
On 8 August 2023, the ABF supported by members of the Gold Coast Joint Organised Crime Team, consisting of the Australian Federal Police, Queensland Police Service, Queensland Health, Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Victoria Police and NSW Police Force (NSWPF) executed warrants at 11 properties across the South East Queensland, Tweed Heads, and Coffs Harbour regions.
Across the 11 premises, the ABF seized more than AUD$1.4 million in cash, in excess of 2,800,000 cigarette sticks, approximately 380 kilos of loose leaf tobacco, suspected counterfeit empty plain packaging, and documentary and electronic evidence to support prosecution against alleged Customs Act offences.
During the searches, suspected nicotine vaping products with an estimated street value of AUD$5.3 million were seized by the Queensland Health, TGA and NSWPF.
The cigarettes and tobacco products seized had a total combined potential excise value of more than $3.8 million. Officers also discovered cash counting machines, knuckle dusters, shotgun shells, and a small quantity of illegal drugs.
Investigations into the alleged illicit tobacco network are ongoing.
ABF ITTF Commander Penny Spies applauded the substantial collaboration with a number of law enforcement partners to disrupt the criminal syndicate.
“This is a substantial outcome and will be a significant blow to this criminal network’s multi-layered operations,” Commander Spies said
“It’s also a great demonstration of how intelligence sharing and close collaboration with partner agencies across federal and state jurisdictions can lead to such impressive results. We will continue to work together domestically and internationally to combat illicit tobacco networks.
“As demonstrated with the cash seized at these warrants, the illicit tobacco trade is an attractive market for organised criminal syndicates due to the lucrative profits that can be made in evaded tax. These profits fund lavish lifestyles and are channelled back into organised crime.
“Together with our partner agencies, we have prevented this network from significant infiltration into the illegal domestic tobacco trade and from causing further harm to the Australian community.”
AFP Detective Superintendent Adrian Telfer said the Gold Coast Joint Organised Crime Team was proud to support efforts to target the various income streams of organised crime.
“Organised crime groups use a variety of illicit means to generate income, and tobacco has long been an area of concern. Some people may think getting cheap cigarettes is harmless, but it is anything but; profits obtained from this illegal trade are often used to fund large imports of dangerous drugs and fuels violence on suburban streets,” he said.
Queensland Police Service QJOCT Commander, Detective Inspector Stephen Tiernan, said inter-agency cooperation is crucial in disrupting organised crime and protecting innocent members of the public from its impacts.
“Illicit tobacco products are often laced with illegal and hazardous chemicals and ingredients that risk the health of the unsuspecting people purchasing it, who believe it’s lawful and regulated,” Detective Inspector Tiernan said.
“I applaud all officers involved from across jurisdictions for their effective collaboration in executing these warrants, and taking $9.1 million of illicit products off the streets.”
Queensland Health Acting Chief Health Officer Catherine McDougall said e-cigarettes posed a significant health risk.
“E-cigarette products available today can contain up to 243 unique chemical compounds, including lead, arsenic, formaldehyde and illicit nicotine,” she said.
“Any efforts to reduce accessibility of tobacco and nicotine-containing products should be welcomed and applauded.”