Illegal vape and tobacco trade explodes across Queensland amid ‘bureaucratic shift of accountability’

The illegal sale of nicotine-filled vapes is increasing as black market storefronts supplying them flourish in Queensland, with 30 openings in the past four months alone.

As black market traders push as far north as Townsville, the number of stores is expected to reach 100.

In November, ABC News reported that about 70 illicit tobacco stores had opened in the southeast of the state at the rate of one a week.

Industry stakeholders and police said another 30 stores had since opened.

Over the past six months, the supply and sale of imported unbranded vapes has increased as overseas manufacturers circumvent Australian laws that require people buying vapes filled with liquid nicotine to have a prescription, officials said. law enforcement and industry sources to ABC News.

Queensland health tests on some illicit vapes showed between 6% and 10% nicotine, government sources said.

It comes as in-depth new research from the Australian National University (ANU) has found that the growing use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, poses a “serious public health risk” and threatens to usher in a new generation to smoking.

The review’s lead author, Emily Banks, from the ANU’s National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health, said the evidence showed “e-cigarettes cause significant harm”.

The review found that vaping increased the risk of multiple adverse health effects, including poisoning, addiction, seizures, burns, lung damage and smoking.

Frustrated law enforcement, retailers and industry stakeholders said the illicit trade continued to grow amid a “bureaucratic shift of responsibility” between state and federal departments.

A law enforcement officer who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity said there was “no oversight, strategic direction and tangible response to deal with the observed increase in number of storefronts selling illegal tobacco and vapes”.

Some illicit vapes tested contain up to 10% nicotine.(Provided: Unsplash)

Jurisdictional confusion during the raids

Three tonnes of leaf tobacco and 291,000 cigarettes were seized in raids by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) on three properties south of Brisbane last month.

Thousands of unmarked Chinese-made vapes were also reportedly found in the raid on two storage units in Berrinba, Logan.

Government sources said the ATO refused to seize the vapes because the product was outside its jurisdiction.

Queensland Health, the state’s sole authority responsible for tobacco regulation, also refused to seize the vapes, government sources said.

Queensland Police removed the vapes from storage units, they said.

Asked why vapers were not mentioned in the tax office’s March 21 press release about the raids, a spokesperson said vaping products did not fall under the administered excise law. by the ATO.

“If we identify vaping products, we refer the matter to the appropriate state health authority,” said the spokesperson, who could not comment further on the Queensland investigation.

Bags of tobacco and “chop chop” cigarettes laid out in a back yard of a property.
Chop-chop tobacco seized during the raid at a Logan property.(Provided: Australian Revenue Service )

A spokesperson for Queensland Health said the illegal tobacco trade was a fiscal and public health offense which it was working to prevent with relevant government agencies.

“This includes liaising with stakeholders on strategies to promote smoking product compliance and working with the Queensland Police Service and the Australian Taxation Office to target the illegal cultivation and sale of illegal tobacco,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson declined to comment on the raids.

The Australian Border Force (ABF), which chairs the National Illegal Tobacco Task Force (ITTF), said it has a significant presence in Queensland and is also working with state and territory authorities and legitimate industry partners.

“The ABF and the ITTF work hard to deter, disrupt and dismantle the most serious and organized criminal syndicates involved in the trade,” the ABF said.

“We are acutely aware of the impacts of this trade on the community.”

Bags of illegal tobacco and cigarettes laid out in the back yard
Bags of illegal tobacco and cigarettes were found during the raid on the property south of Brisbane.(Provided: Australian Revenue Service )

The Australian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS) has said inaction against the illicit tobacco trade has a ‘human cost’ in terms of mental health for small business owners facing store closures and laying off staff .

“We have examples of small businesses losing thousands of dollars, week after week, with the influx of illicit tobacco and nicotine-containing vapes entering the state, with several new retail outlets opening each week” , said the director general of the AACS, Theo Foukkare. said in a statement.

The AACS has stressed to the state government that a tobacco licensing system would not work without legislative change that empowers Queensland police to enforce and prosecute illicit traders.

Meanwhile, there are fears for the safety of legitimate Queensland retailers amid reports of stand-over tactics, extortion and threats.

A tobacconist who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity said eight more illicit storefronts are expected to open in Townsville before Christmas, which could cost up to 80 retail jobs.

“We didn’t expect it (the illicit trade) to become so big,” the tobacconist said.

The tobacconist said it was aware of two incidents in which area retailers were threatened with being “kicked out of town” if they did not sell their stores.

The tobacconist has approached state and federal politicians for help in stopping the illicit trade from undermining and undermining law-abiding retailers.

The Queensland Government has been repeatedly warned of the impending rise of the illicit trade. Despite promises made six years ago to allow tobacco retailers, no legislative action has been taken.

Industry and law enforcement sources told ABC News that the Queensland government is set to announce a review of whether to establish a tobacco license register.

State police ministers from across the country met recently to “examine opportunities to coordinate efforts to combat illicit tobacco.”

National Home Secretary Karen Andrews, who chaired the meeting, said illicit tobacco undermines legitimate businesses, erodes the national tax base and can be used to test drug and arms smuggling routes by organized crime.

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