A specialised unit involving the ATO has swooped on stores across Victoria in an attempt to stamp out a tobacco turf war between rival crime gangs.
Taskforce seizes illegal tobacco worth millions in dozens of raids
A crackdown on illicit tobacco in Victoria has seized vapes valued at $2.7 million plus illegal cigarettes and tobacco that dodged $3.2 million in tax after dozens of raids across the state by a specialised taskforce.
The taskforce, which involved the ATO and ABF as well as the police, swooped on more than 30 stores around Melbourne and a further 16 stores in regional centres from Yarrawonga to Ballarat, arresting six people.
The haul from the four-day operation included:
- 92,331 vapes with a street value of over $2.7 million.
- 1,324,268 cigarettes with duty excise evaded totalling over $1.6 million.
- 901kg of loose-leaf tobacco with duty excise evaded totalling $1.6 million.
- 2kg of cannabis and 1kg of cocaine.
- Industrial tobacco manufacturing equipment.
- $42,901 in proceeds of crime.
A 40-year-old Northcote man has been charged in relation to drug trafficking offences and five others were released pending further enquiries.
The ATO said the raids were part of a Taskforce Lunar investigation into organised crime syndicates clashing over profits from illegal tobacco.
ATO acting deputy commissioner Rebecca Fealy said its staff were working tirelessly to expose the activity.
“We are committed to disrupting organised crime syndicates that produce and supply illicit tobacco for sale in Australia,” she said.
“Illicit tobacco retailers gain an unfair price advantage over honest businesses who do the right thing. We actively work with our partner agencies to stamp out these retailers.”
Detective Superintendent Jason Kelly of the State Anti-Gangs Division said no one in Victoria involved in the distribution and sale of illicit tobacco would escape scrutiny.
“There can be a perception that it is easier to hide in the country, where people might mistakenly believe they are safe from being targeted and out of constant law enforcement attention,” he said.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“As long as people’s lives remain at risk due to this heightened criminal activity, we will continue to do absolutely everything we can to deter, disrupt and dismantle these syndicates.”
The raids, conducted over a 10-day period, came after a string of serious incidents this year including 27 suspicious fires predominantly linked to tobacco stores in both metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria.
The ATO said criminal syndicates were competing to place illicit tobacco into stores and exhort a “tax” each week to operate.
Police believed those involved came from Middle Eastern organised crime groups and outlaw motorcycle gangs.
Over the past two months, police and the ABF have conducted over 100 store visits to obtain further information about the current dispute, with 13 arrests so far.
Detective Superintendent Kelly said the crime syndicates had little regard for the harm they were inflicting on the community in their battle for illicit tobacco profits.
“We’ve seen a significant number of arson attacks, along with several firearms incidents, and it’s only through sheer luck that no one has been killed,” he said.
“While people’s lives remain at risk due to this heightened criminal activity, we will continue to target these organised crime syndicates and do everything we can to hold them accountable.”