Customs and TradeNews

Transnational illicit tobacco crime groups disrupted as part of global action on illicit tobacco trade

A prominent organised crime syndicate has been dealt a heavy blow by the multi-agency Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF) after months of sustained action aimed at strangling the group’s operations in Australia and offshore. ​

The syndicate, predominately based in Victoria, is heavily involved in the domestic cultivation, manufacture, importation, distribution, and sale of illicit tobacco in Australia.  

The Australian Border Force ​​(ABF), Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and Victoria Police recently executed Excise Act 1901 warrants at a Broadford property, the latest in a series of warrants and disruption activities undertaken by the ITTF against the syndicate over the past few months.

Since February 2022, multiple illicit tobacco crops throughout rural Victoria have been seized and destroyed. The ATO and Victoria Police also seized equipment related to tobacco cultivation and processing, vehicles, cash and weapons. Victoria Police has been heavily involved in assisting the ITTF in targeting this syndicate through multiple traffic stops resulting in the seizure of recently harvested tobacco.

Since July 2021, the ABF has also thwarted the syndicate’s activities as they attempted to import more than 283 million cigarette sticks and over 8 tonnes of loose leaf tobacco.

These enforcement actions have deprived the organised crime syndicate of an estimated $400 million dollars, with the sustained efforts by authorities being heavily disruptive to the syndicate’s business model.

ATO Assistant Commissioner Jade Hawkins welcomed the collaborative effort by all agencies involved in the disruption of the Australian operations of this transnational organised crime syndicate.

“Illicit tobacco growing operations are not run by small producers or farmers. They are run by organised crime syndicates who evade tax, steal water, disregard regulations and do whatever it takes to grow their crop.

“They use their profits to fund their lavish lifestyles and engage in criminal behaviour well beyond the sale of illicit tobacco, at the expense of every Australian,” she said.

“As part of the ITTF, the ATO is committed to disrupting organised crime syndicates involved in illicit tobacco from stalk to supply.”

Victoria Police Acting Commander, Peter Brigham, highlighted the detrimental impact illicit tobacco has on the community through the harm it funds.

“The sale of illicit tobacco and its links to further criminality, including activities of organised crime groups, can have a significant negative impact on communities and businesses. The profit of illicit tobacco is usually funnelled back to organised criminal syndicates that are involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

“Law enforcement agencies continue to work together to identify, disrupt and prosecute those responsible for causing harm in the community, but I would also encourage people to be aware of what they’re buying and its greater links to criminality,” Acting Commander Brigham said.

The syndicate is linked to entities offshore that are of interest to international law enforcement counterparts. This shows the greater global commitment to tackle the growing illicit tobacco trade around the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that illicit tobacco accounts for as much as one in every 10 cigarettes consumed globally. International intelligence also shows that cigarettes are one of the most smuggled ‘legal’ products in the world and cigarette smuggling is a form of transnational organised crime dominated by serious organised criminal groups.

ABF Commander Special Investigations Greg Linsdell noted the importance of the enforcement actions related to this syndicate.  

“These significant seizures and disruptions illustrate how large the illicit tobacco problem is in Australia and globally. It also demonstrates the sophistication of these criminal groups and their ability to adapt and diversify their operations to ensure continuous supply.

“The ITTF will continue to work closely with our domestic and international partners to disrupt the activities of the syndicates in Australia, and also pre-border, to prevent the illicit goods ever reaching our shores,” Commander Linsdell said.

Investigators from the ITTF were also involved in a recent operation which dealt a major blow to another organised crime syndicate group involved in the Australian illicit tobacco trade following a more than four year investigation.

Four men were charged following an operation which was carried out by Victoria Police Trident Task Force with support from the ABF ITTF, ABF Investigations and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC).

These arrests are a significant disruption to this syndicate’s ability to import and distribute illicit tobacco in Australia.