The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) executed warrants yesterday across five sites at Mount Seaview, near Port Macquarie, New South Wales (NSW).
ATO officers, with the assistance of NSW Police, located over 50 acres of tobacco crops, including over 30 acres of mature tobacco crops and 20 acres of seedlings.
The ATO seized and destroyed over 26 tonnes of illicit tobacco which had a potential excise value of approximately $35.5 million.
The ATO is responsible for detecting, investigating and prosecuting those who domestically grow or manufacture illicit tobacco products. This investigation commenced as a result of a tip off to NSW Police.
Assistant Commissioner Ian Read said this is a successful outcome for the ATO, the NSW Police and the Australian community.
“The trade in illicit tobacco products in Australia has widespread negative consequences across the community. Tobacco growing operations are not run by small producers or farmers. They are run by organised criminal syndicates who deliberately engage in illegal activities,” Mr Read said.
“Involvement in illicit tobacco production is a serious offence. This type of activity takes vital money away from the community and places it directly into the hands of organised crime syndicates.
“It was also observed that water was being taken directly from the Hastings River to irrigate the crops. Growing tobacco uses a significant amount of water, which is a drain on precious resources in a time of drought.
“Engaging in the illicit tobacco trade is not victimless. It significantly deprives the community of taxes that are required to fund essential community services such as roads, schools and hospitals,” Mr Read said.
The ATO estimates that illicit tobacco costs the Australian community $647 million in lost revenue each year.
Mid North Coast Police District Commander, Detective Superintendent Paul Fehon said the collaborative effort between local police and the ATO has been outstanding in dismantling this large tobacco network on the Mid North Coast.
“Our Target Action Group officers have worked closely from day one with ATO investigators to seize this massive haul. This comes as a result of detailed investigation work by our detectives and the ATO.
“No arrests have been made in relation to the seizure. Two men were found to be unlawfully in Australia, they were taken to Port Macquarie Police Station where inquiries are continuing.”
“NSW Police will continue investigations, including into the alleged illegal removal of water from the Hastings River as part of the cultivation process.”
“We will continue to conduct operations targeting illicit activities across the Mid North Coast including Commonwealth offences of this nature,” Det Supt Fehon said.
It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade. If convicted, the possession of tobacco over 500kgs carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
The ATO is part of the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF), which was established to investigate, prosecute and dismantle organised crime groups who use the proceeds of illicit tobacco to fund other criminal activity, as well as ensure the appropriate revenue is paid to the Australian Government.
If you suspect that illegal tobacco is being grown or manufactured in your community you can confidentially report it online at ato.gov.au/illicittobacco or by calling 1800 060 062.