The surge in Australia’s clandestine tobacco marketplace continues unchecked, authorities have noted, uncovering links to a series of gang-related homicides and arson incidents nationwide. The illegal tobacco trade has become a growing concern for the government amid allegations of its entanglement with notorious factions of organised crime.
Scott Weber of the Police Federation of Australia presented this alarming picture during an inquiry on the newly introduced vaping and smoking laws. Weber portrayed the black-market tobacco operation as a proliferating issue that has become enmeshed with serious criminal activity. “The recent spate of murders and arson attacks in Melbourne and Queensland bare witness to this fact and law enforcers are currently grappling with these investigations,” said Weber.
These criminal acts, he explained, are the handiwork of organised crime groups, mainly fuelled by the astronomical profits from the illicit tobacco trade. This dangerous trend is not confined to a few areas but is spreading across various states and territories.
The year has seen at least 28 tobacco stores in Melbourne victim to arson attacks. A recent firebombing incident reported in late October in the northern part of the city has been traced to an escalating conflict between two prominent criminal groups. In the preceding month alone, illegal tobacco goods worth over two million dollars were confiscated in Victoria as authorities further probed the involvement of organised crime.
Weber voiced concerns over the dwindling morale amongst police officers and stressed the need for an efficient method to combat the black-market tobacco trade. This would, in turn, allow authorities more bandwidth to address grave matters such as domestic violence and public safety, he suggested. “As resources are stretched thin at present, tackling this headache is only depleting them further,” Weber noted.
Illegal tobacco trade has caused a record tax deficit of $2.3bn in October, as stated by the ATO. Weber estimated this shortfall could escalate to $3bn in the upcoming financial year. “Dealing with such a significant crime issue is especially challenging in the current scenario of diminished police forces across Australia,” he added.
Weber’s statements were recorded during a Senate hearing scrutinising new legislation intended to dampen legal tobacco and nicotine use in the country. Introduced by the Albanese government earlier this year, the proposed law seeks to magnify the essential health warnings on tobacco packaging, promote transparency in tobacco sales volumes, advertising, and also halt the import of non-prescription vapes, besides imposing a total ban on all single-use, disposable vapes.
The Australian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS), however, argued the new legislation would inadvertently bolster the black market by simplifying accessibility. Theo Foukkare, CEO of AACS, further commented on the widespread availability of vape products, stating, “They are available online, and almost in every street corner depending on the suburb that you’re in. I’ve had uber drivers try to sell me vapes, I’ve heard of fish and chip shops trying to sell vapes.”