The Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF), a multi-agency Taskforce led by the Australian Border Force (ABF), has undertaken a two-day blitz disrupting three illicit tobacco growing operations across regional Victoria and New South Wales. Officers uncovered over 100 acres of illicit tobacco with a total combined potential excise value of more than $84 million.
On 3 March 2021, officers from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), the ABF and New South Wales Police, located 65 acres of tobacco crops in Kyalite, New South Wales. The ITTF operation saw the seizure and destruction of over 183 tonnes of illicit tobacco which has a potential excise value of approximately $36 million. The NSW Natural Resources Access Regulator also attended the property to investigate possible water theft offences.
On the same day, ATO officers and Victoria Police, located 29.3 acres of illicit tobacco crops in Beverford, Victoria as part of an ITTF operation. ATO officers seized and destroyed 183 tonnes of illicit tobacco crops and 140kg processed tobacco bales which has a potential excise value of more than $36.3 million.
On 4 March, the ATO and Victoria Police attended a property in Vinifera, Victoria where they located approximately 13 acres of illicit tobacco crops with a potential excise value of $12 million. ATO officers seized and destroyed over 60.7 tonnes of illicit tobacco.
ATO Assistant Commissioner Ian Read said this is one of the biggest weeks we’ve ever had disrupting illicit tobacco growing operations in Australia. It demonstrates the ATO’s contribution to the ITTF, and the Taskforce’s capability to detect, disrupt and dismantle organised crime syndicates involved in the illicit tobacco trade.
“Tobacco growing operations are not run by small producers or farmers. They are run by organised crime syndicates who deliberately engage in illegal activities to fund their extravagant lifestyles and other criminal activity,” Mr Read said.
“Engaging in the illicit tobacco trade is not a victimless crime. It significantly deprives the community of taxes that are required to fund essential community services such as roads, schools and hospitals.”
“I urge people to keep reporting any activity they suspect may involve the production of illicit tobacco. Public tip-offs build on the intelligence we gather from a range of sources and help us to identify, seize and destroy these illicit crops before they are harvested and sold on the black market.”
“Signs to look out for include intense labour production between November and May, suspicious enquiries about land for lease, unexplained use of water resources and large crops of leafy plants that resemble kale, cabbage or corn and may have a pink flower growing on top.” Mr Read said.
The illicit tobacco market in Australia is worth about $822 million a year in evaded revenue.
It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade. If convicted, growing tobacco carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.
ABF Assistant Commissioner South and Enforcement, Phil Brezzo said the ITTF is committed to targeting, disrupting and dismantling the illicit tobacco trade and their associated criminal activities.
“Buying illicit tobacco is a crime. It also supports organised crime groups to undertake other serious criminal activities that harm Australian society,” Assistant Commissioner Brezzo said.
“The growing of tobacco in Australia often involves the illegal sourcing of water, which undermines legitimate farmers and Government sustainability measures.”
The ITTF is an ABF-led multi-agency Taskforce that combines the operational, investigative and intelligence capabilities of the ABF, ATO, Department of Home Affairs, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) and Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP).
The ITTF also works very closely with state and territory law enforcement agencies.
The ITTF 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 in your community you can confidentially report it online at ato.gov.au/illicittobacco or by calling 1800 060 062.