Sneaky trick to sell cheap cigarettes
FANCY a packet of wine-flavoured cigarettes? What about cigarettes that will leave a barbecue taste in your mouth?
These are the questions customers are being asked as tobacconists start using sneaky tricks to promote new cigarettes under the table and avoid advertising restrictions.
In numerous reports told to news.com.au, customers said they are being asked by tobacconists whether they'd like to "try" new types of cigarettes, some retailing for as low as $18 a pack.
The Public Health (Tobacco) Act of 2008 dolls out harsh penalties to anyone caught advertising or promoting tobacco or e-cigarette products or anyone engaging in prohibited sponsorships or advertising cigarette offers.
An individual caught doing any of those things are immediately hit with a $55,000 fine which rises to $110,000 for any time after that.
And while Australia and its illicit tobacco trade is increasingly becoming a problem industry, it's something the Cancer Council claims the tobacco industry grossly exaggerates.
ARE WE A NATION OF LAW BREAKERS?
The Cancer Council's director of public policy, Paul Grogan, told news.com.au that Australia's illegal tobacco trade was a lot smaller than it seems.
"The statistics are nowhere near as dramatic as they claim. We've seen seizures of illicit tobacco all around Australia which means the system is working. No one will risk prosecution over access to things that are not popular across the population. We do what we need to do to reduce smoking in the population," he said.
Despite that, there's no denying tobacconists selling illegal cigarettes can stand to make millions in tax-free income.
In a statement earlier this month, CEO of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, Jeff Rogut, said criminals were taking advantage of cigarette legislation.
"For too long, criminals have taken advantage of the gaps that exist around regulation of illegal tobacco, and have literally been driving trucks laden with contraband through those gaps," he said.
"The trade is booming - and cigarettes have become the most valuable commodity for crime gangs. Our stores and our staff are victims of terrifying smash and grab robberies on a daily basis."
People profiting from the illicit tobacco trade can face severe penalties if caught but even with the penalties, Mr Grogan insisted any figures around the industry were "exaggerated".
"Only 33 per cent of smokers are aware of illegal tobacco and of that, 11.4 per cent of them actually smoke illicit cigarettes. We know that the illicit trade exists but the extent is highly exaggerated as a way to try and undermine effective health campaigns to stop smoking," he said.
Mr Grogan said the tobacco industry held much more control than it first appeared, using retailers and even "concerned anti-smoking organisations" as fronts.
"Retailers are fronts for the tobacco industry because they pull the strings for a lot of people," he said. "There's been lots of front groups over the years and if you dig deep enough, you'll find they've been directly funded by the tobacco industry."
Despite that, a spokesman for British American Tobacco Australia, our country's largest cigarette company, slammed claims the industry was "inventing" stories.
"The idea that legal tobacco manufacturers invent the existence of illegal tobacco in Australia is ridiculous," the spokesman said.
He said the Cancer Council should "pull their heads out of the sand" when it came to illicit tobacco.
"Media coverage in recent weeks has shown repeated large scale seizures of smuggled tobacco, involvement of criminal networks and law enforcement officials voicing concern at the growing problem," the spokesman said.
"Illegal tobacco entirely undermines the tobacco control policies which the Cancer Council advocates so strongly for. The time has come for them to pull their heads out of the sand."
Despite the Australian Border Force seizing 400 tonnes of illegal tobacco and prosecuting 45 smugglers in the past two years, the illicit tobacco trade continues to reign supreme as cigarettes become more and more expensive.
A recent report from KPMG found the Australian government was losing $1.6 billion a year to the illegal tobacco industry. A huge range of brands and counterfeit imitations are sold illegally by small grocery stores and individuals across the country.
"Police at both the border and street levels are in desperate need of more resources to take on the powerful crime syndicates who control this lucrative business, and the retailers are desperate for them to have those," Mr Rogut said in his statement.
The spokesman for British American Tobacco Australia said the company did not engage in the illicit tobacco trade however they did "advise retailers" to offer customers alternatives.
"As is common for any competitive business, we advise retailers of BATA products which they may wish to offer customers as an alternative to those manufactured by our competitors," he said.
BUSTED IN THE PAST
Late last month, a Free Choice Tobacconist store in the Sydney suburb of Bondi Junction was fined $72,000 for selling cigarettes without health warnings. The couple who owned the store were both found guilty of 36 offences, which hold a fine of $1,000 each.
The 72 offences meant they received the record fine of $72,000, after they were caught when a member of the public tipped off inspectors.
In 2009, the operator of Coles Express Service Stations in NSW was fined a whopping $107,000 for breaching tobacco advertising laws.
Three service stations were found guilty of upselling cigarettes, including offering customers promotions such as buying additional packets for a discounted price.
Another 23 NSW service stations pleaded guilty.
In September 2014, border control found around 2.2 tons of undeclared loose tobacco with an estimated tax revenue of $1.5 million hidden in foil packages labelled "Pandan Tea" entering the port of Melbourne from Vietnam.
In November 2015, officers discovered four million cigarettes with an estimated tax evasion value of more than $2.25 million declared as carpet tiles as they arrived in Sydney from Singapore. Others have worked with alleged corrupt industry officials on the Sydney waterfront and in the maritime supply chain.