Smoke screen

March 01, 2018

Seymour is still being flooded with illegal tobacco products despite a police raid on one outlet in January.

Local police and Border Force officers netted roughly $20000 worth of illegal tobacco products from a Station St store in January, but it was back in business the following week.

The founder and former leader of the Australian Border Force's Tobacco Strike Team, Rohan Pike, recently visited Seymour to gain a further understanding of the local illegal tobacco market.

Mr Pike said his major observation was that locals were concerned organised crime was operating with impunity in their main street.

‘‘They are concerned organised crime syndicates may introduce other products such as drugs and weapons into their community ... and they are concerned that this illegal activity can generate huge revenue with so little risk,’’ he said.

According to Mr Pike, illicit tobacco generates $2 billion for organised crime in Victoria alone.

He also said given tobacco typically accounts for 30 per cent of the turnover of businesses such as supermarkets and convenience stores, illegal sales in Seymour can have a devastating effect on the profits of lawful businesses.

‘‘Businesses selling tobacco are concerned about their security as the high price of tobacco products makes their shops a common target for hold-ups and robberies,’’ he said.

‘‘The community is also concerned that cheap cigarettes make them more accessible to children and the shop selling them is totally unregulated in this regard,’’ he said.

Mr Pike also said he thought the community in Seymour was grateful to the local police for taking some action, but said the perception is the raids are done on an ‘‘ad hoc’’ basis and don’t have a long-lasting impact.

‘‘Any charges laid result in tiny and ineffective fines,’’ he said.

‘‘The local police are powerless to stop the crime from continuing, given their many other priorities and lack of relevant state legislation. I was able to buy an illegal packet of Double Happiness cigarettes within a week of the raid.’’

So was The Telegraph — we purchased a packet yesterday to confirm the illegal trade was ongoing.

Under section 36 of the Tobacco Act 1987 (Victoria), a Mitchell Shire Council health inspector is authorised to obtain a search warrant from a magistrate to enter premises, by force if necessary, and seize any illegally imported tobacco they can find.

However, a major problem at this point, both in Seymour and across Victoria, is that despite the legislation, local councils are ill-equipped to carry out such an operation.

Mitchell Shire chief executive David Turnbull said his council had a limited involvement in the investigation of illegal tobacco sales and enforcement of the law because council officers were not trained to deal with such situations. He also cited safety concerns and a lack of resources.

‘‘This is not unique to Mitchell Shire, with many councils having little or no involvement with illegal tobacco,’’ he said.

‘‘As a sector, local government has been advocating to the Victorian Government for changes to the Tobacco Act which transfer the entire responsibility for investigating allegations of criminal activity to more appropriate agencies.

‘‘Council deals with very low-level tobacco enforcement, generally between individuals and or shops, which result in minor infractions.

‘‘More high-level tobacco enforcement is dealt with by Victoria Police. Council’s primary role in relation to tobacco sales is to address issues such as smoking in prohibited places, sales to minors, advertising and education.’’

Mr Turnbull recognised the Council’s power to obtain a search warrant under the Tobacco Act, but said it doesn’t work like this in practice.

‘‘This rarely occurs as investigations are usually dealt with by Victoria Police, who can search a property without the assistance of council by obtaining a search warrant with assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services,’’ he said.

Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Maher said where Seymour Police and Mitchell Shire Council successfully conducted an operation on a store on Keith St, this co-operation has ceased.

‘‘Since that operation concluded, for various reasons, Mitchell Shire has decided not to pursue these types of investigations for their own reasons,’’ he said.

Following the Station St raid in January, Det Sen Sgt Maher highlighted another problem, also raised by Mr Pike, in terms of combating illegal tobacco in Seymour — investigating illegal tobacco set-ups is not part of Victoria Police’s core function.

‘‘We obviously have to prioritise our investigations ... and we focus more on the serious illicit drug trafficking, the road toll and traffic policing to avoid serious injury,’’ he said.

‘‘Border Protection assists when they can, but pretty much focus on the bigger investigations in relation to importation and preventing it from reaching the shores of Australia.’’

However, Police Minister Lisa Neville said the Victorian Government invests $9million every year in tobacco control measures, including enforcement activities under the Tobacco Act 1987.

‘‘The government is investing to crackdown on the trade of illicit tobacco industry across the state,’’ Ms Neville said.

‘‘Police work with other jurisdictions to identify and stamp out illegal tobacco producers and sellers who undermine tobacco control policies.

‘‘Police officers also work closely with major cigarette distributors to gather intelligence and work with retailers to identify crime prevention measures.’’

Member for Euroa Steph Ryan said the availability of illicit tobacco hurts tax-paying small retail businesses, which in turn affects their ability to employ people.

‘‘Law enforcement agencies, including the ATO, seem to be focused on larger investigations to identify organised crime which might be supplying these products rather than the traders who continue to illegally peddle the product,’’ Ms Ryan said.

‘‘It is extremely frustrating for traders when the people who are undercutting them by selling illegal tobacco aren’t prosecuted for it.’’

At the federal level, Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell said the Department of Home Affairs has been unclear and unwilling to provide details about their funding of the Australian Border Force Tobacco Strike Team beyond the current financial year.

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