The illegal sale of nicotine-filled vapes is increasing as the black market storefronts supplying them flourish in Queensland, with 30 setting up in just the past four months.
- Frustrated law enforcement, retailers and industry stakeholders say the illegal trade is expanding amid “bureaucratic buck-passing”
- A law enforcement officer says there is “no oversight, strategic guidance and tangible response” to deal with expanding trade
- Legitimate traders say they are being threatened and are losing business
As black market traders push as far north as Townsville, the number of stores is expected to hit 100.
In November, ABC News revealed about 70 illicit tobacco stores had opened in the state’s south-east at the rate of one a week.
Industry stakeholders and police said 30 more stores had since opened.
In the past six months, the supply and sale of imported unmarked vapes have increased as overseas manufacturers have circumvented Australian laws that require people purchasing liquid nicotine-filled vapes to have a prescription, law enforcement and industry sources have told ABC News.
Queensland Health testing of some illicit vapes found between 6 per cent and 10 per cent nicotine, government sources said.
It comes as comprehensive new research from the Australian National University (ANU) found the growing use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, poses a “serious public health risk” and threatens to introduce a new generation to smoking.
Review lead author Emily Banks, from the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, said the evidence showed “e-cigarettes carry significant harms”.
The review found vaping increased the risk of multiple adverse health outcomes, including poisoning, addiction, seizures, burns, lung injury and smoking uptake.
Frustrated law enforcement, retailers and industry stakeholders said the illicit trade continued to expand amid “bureaucratic buck-passing” between state and federal departments.
A law enforcement officer who spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity said there was “no oversight, strategic guidance and tangible response to deal with the noted increase in the number of storefronts selling illegal tobacco and vapes”.
Jurisdictional confusion at raids
Three tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco and 291,000 cigarettes were seized in raids led by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) on three properties south of Brisbane last month.
Thousands of Chinese-manufactured unmarked vapes were also allegedly found during the raid on two storage units in Berrinba, in Logan.
Government sources said the ATO refused to seize the vapes as 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 the storage units, they said.
Asked why the vapes were not mentioned in the tax office’s March 21 press release about the raids, a spokesperson said vaping products do not fall under the excise act the ATO administered.
“If we identify vaping products, we refer the matter to the relevant state health authority,” said the spokesperson, who could not comment further on the Queensland investigation.
A Queensland Health spokesperson said the trade of illegal tobacco was a tax and public health offence it worked to prevent with relevant government agencies.
“This includes liaising with stakeholders on strategies to promote smoking-product compliance and collaborating with the Queensland Police Service and the Australian Taxation Office to target unlawful 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 Illicit Tobacco Task Force (ITTF), said it had a significant Queensland presence and it also worked with state and territory authorities and legitimate industry partners.
“The ABF and ITTF are working hard to deter, disrupt and dismantle the most serious and organised criminal syndicates involved in the trade,” the ABF said.
“We are acutely aware of the impacts this trade has on the community.”
The Australian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS) said inaction on the illicit tobacco trade came at a “human cost” in terms of mental health for small business owners who faced closing their stores and firing staff.
“We have examples of small businesses losing thousands of dollars, week on week, with the influx of illicit tobacco and nicotine-containing vapes entering the state, with several new retail outlets opening on a weekly basis,” AACS chief executive officer Theo Foukkare said in a statement.
The AACS stressed to the state government that a licensing scheme for tobacco would not work without legislative change that empowered 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 the condition of anonymity said eight more illicit storefronts were expected to open in Townsville before Christmas, potentially costing up to 80 retail jobs.
“We never expected it (the illicit trade) to get this big,” the tobacconist said.
The tobacconist said they were aware of two incidents in which retailers in the region had been threatened with being “run out of town” if they did not sell their stores.
The tobacconist approached both state and federal politicians seeking help to stop the illicit trade from undermining and undercutting law-abiding retailers.
The Queensland government has been repeatedly warned about the impending boom in the illicit trade. Despite promises six years ago to licence tobacco retailers, no legislative action has been taken.
Industry and law enforcement sources have told ABC News the Queensland government is set to announce a review into whether to establish a tobacco licence register.
State police ministers from around the country met recently to “consider opportunities to coordinate efforts to combat illicit tobacco”.
National Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, who chaired the meeting, said illicit tobacco undercuts legitimate businesses, erodes the national tax base and can be used to test smuggling routes for drugs and weapons by organised crime.