Illegal tobacco crop seized and destroyed

A man has been arrested after 50.3 tonnes of tobacco from an illegal tobacco crop was seized during an operation in NSW by the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF).

On Wednesday 13 January 2021, warrants were executed at a Bulga property under Operation Bellatrix – a joint operation by the Australian Border Force (ABF) led Taskforce, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and NSW Police.

Approximately two hectares of illegal tobacco crops and just under a hectare of immature planted seedlings found at the property were seized and destroyed. The tobacco had a potential excise value of more than $9.9 million.

Along with the tobacco crop, also located and seized were seedlings and industrial equipment used in the growing and manufacturing of illicit tobacco, including a planting machine, a tractor, a spray boom and fertiliser.

A 33-year-old man was arrested by NSW Police and taken to Singleton Police Station. He was charged with possess tobacco/seed/plant/leaf 500 kilograms or above and manufacture tobacco/seed/plant/leaf 500 kilograms or above.

He was granted conditional bail to appear at Singleton Local Court on Thursday 11 February 2021.

The ATO estimates that illicit tobacco costs the Australian community $822 million in lost revenue each year.

ABF Assistant Commissioner South and Enforcement Phil Brezzo says the Taskforce is committed to stamping out both the production and importation of illicit tobacco.

“This operation highlights how the Taskforce works with its law enforcement partners to detect, disrupt and dismantle serious organised crime syndicates that deal in illicit tobacco,” Assistant Commissioner Brezzo said.

“People who engage in the illicit tobacco trade – whether it is growing, importing, supplying or buying black market tobacco – not only put money into the hands of organised criminals, but they deprive the community of tax revenue required to fund essential services such as roads, schools and hospitals.”

ATO Assistant Commissioner Ian Read urged people to report 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. If you suspect that illegal tobacco is being grown or manufactured in your community you can confidentially report it online at ato.gov.au/tipoff or by calling 1800 060 062,” Mr Read said.

“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 may resemble kale, cabbage or corn.

“If you see a crop of tobacco, you can be certain it’s not legal. It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade. If convicted, growing tobacco carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.”

NSW Police Hunter Valley Police District Commander, Acting Superintendent Michael Gorman said these joint operations are greatly assisted by the community coming forward with information.

“The public are our eyes and ears on the ground, if you see any suspicious activity in your neighbourhood and you think criminal activity may be occurring, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or your local police station.” A/Supt Gorman said.

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.

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