The illegal tobacco industry in Australia is variously estimated to be equivalent to around 14 per cent of total volume. Illicit tobacco comes in several forms: bulk rolling tobacco or “chop-chop” as it is often called, dodgy unfamiliar imported brands, imported major brand counterfeits and now, tobacco stolen from retail stores here in Australia.
As convenience stores have hardened up their security over the years and installed cash management safes, there is now much less cash in the drawer to attract armed robbers. But the high retail cost of cigarettes has made tobacco a much more lucrative target for criminals.
Figures released detailed 450 armed robberies of tobacco products from retail outlets in Victoria in the twelve months to March this year. There is little doubt that the trend is being repeated in the other States. That’s why the Australasian Association of Convenience stores has called on the Victorian and Federal Governments to implement a coordinated strategy to address the state’s terrifying spate of armed robberies linked directly to bootleg tobacco.
According to AACS, this crime wave is funding organised crime syndicates and fuelling the black market in tobacco, and it is time for different levels of government and agencies within it to take coordinated action.
New footage released last week by Crime Stoppers shows the confronting reality faced by retail workers – brazen criminals armed with dangerous weapons, kicking in doors and traumatising staff. Australasian Association of Convenience Stores CEO Jeff Rogut, said the footage and the figures were horrifying.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, what’s happening here is crime gangs are smashing our shops, traumatising our staff, stealing our cigarettes, reselling them and then reaping the rewards,” Mr Rogut said.
“Sometimes they aren’t even interested in what’s in the till, it’s the cigarettes that are worth more than $250 a carton, and are easy to turn around and sell.
“These crimes take an extraordinarily heavy psychological toll on workers, who are threatened with guns and knives.
“It’s a State issue because of the street crime, but it’s also a national one because these gangs work across borders, and are also selling stuff that avoids in the order of $1.6 billion in excise.
“It leaves our shops smashed up, our staff traumatised and puts billions of dollars in lost tax revenue up in smoke, and we need a co-ordinated, well resourced approach to tackle it, he said.
“We appreciate the efforts of Victoria Police in adopting new measures to improve intelligence sharing between commands, to catch those responsible for these robberies.
“But the fact is they need help to address this growing crime epidemic – and we need a coordinated approach to address what’s really fuelling it all – illegal tobacco.
“It’s time for the Governments to come up with a strategy that addresses this crime crisis and the underlying causes – for the safety of the workers, and for the good of the economy.”
All stores selling tobacco are advised to update the training of their staff as to how to handle themselves in the event of such a holdup.