Australian authorities seize A$40m illicit tobacco crop

A 25-tonne crop of illicit tobacco valued at A$40m ($31m) has been seized and destroyed by authorities in Queensland, Australia.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) joined forces with Queensland Police on a raid in at a site in Linthorpe and discovered a 10-acre site turned over to the cultivation of an illegal tobacco crop.

The illicit tobacco market in Australia is worth about A$822m a year in evaded revenue. It has been illegal to grow tobacco in Australia for more than a decade. If convicted, perpetrators face a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.

Assistant Commissioner Ian Read said that engaging in the illicit tobacco trade is not victimless, as it deprives local communities of taxes that are required to fund essential services such as roads and schools.

The growing of illicit tobacco in Australia often involves the illegal sourcing of water, which undermines legitimate farmers and government sustainability measures.

"Tobacco growing operations are not run by small producers or farmers. They are run by organised criminal syndicates who deliberately engage in illegal activities," Read said.

"Organised criminals who deal in illicit tobacco rob the Australian community by using their profits to fund their criminal behaviour well beyond the sale of illegal tobacco."

Signs to look out for include intense labour production between November and May, suspicious enquiries about land for lease and unexplained use of water resources, according to the ATO.

Mature tobacco plants can be up to 2.5 metres tall, have large green leaves and long trumpet-shaped, white-pinkish flowers, and may resemble kale, cabbage or corn.

In March, the ATO also seized around A$84m of illegal tobacco crops in New South Wales and Victoria.

Tobacco crops grown illegally are often used to manufacture counterfeit cigarettes, which can be produced in squalid conditions and can contain much higher levels of cancer-causing chemicals than even genuine brands, along with other contaminants like asbestos, mould, dust, dead flies, rat droppings and even human excrement.

A 2018 KPMG report estimated that around 14 per cent of tobacco products consumed in Australia were illegal.

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