ActivePaper Archive No butts, it’s time to act - The Age, 4/2/2023

No butts, it’s time to act


Illegal tobacco shops are trading with impunity and we all pay the price.

Every day, I walk past a crime scene.

There is no blue tape, no flashing lights, nobody in a uniform telling me to move along and to mind my own business. The same crime is committed daily across the country, in broad daylight and without interruption.

Illegal tobacco and vape shops are trading everywhere with impunity, flagrantly selling untaxed, illegal cigarettes as well as dangerous vapes.

Black market tobacconists have no shortage of co-offenders – their collaborators are not just organised crime figures, but also the many delighted customers feeding their nicotine addiction at half price, turning a blind eye to the true character of the dodgy businesses they patronise.

There are so many reasons for strict enforcement of the laws against these pirates, yet it is only sporadic and ineffectual. Every few months, there will be a raid on one shop in one city or town, while literally thousands of other outlets trade on unimpeded. As soon as one shop is shut down, another one opens nearby. Owing to regulatory spaghetti, it is a fingers-in-the dyke type of struggle.

Police in every state have proven the trade’s links to the underworld. After six months of inaction, two recent police and council raids in suburban Melbourne give us an insight. Victoria Police report that a single shop in the City of Kingston, in the south-east suburbs, was found to have $1 million worth of illegally imported cigarettes plus 4000 illegal e-cigarettes. A shopkeeper in Deer Park was found with $400,000 in cash and more than five kilograms of illegal tobacco. Staggering.

It is unarguably in the public interest that there be swift and consistent action against these dodgy retailers.

For a start, according to Australian Border Force, the rampant black market cash trade leads to the leakage of an estimated $2.6 billion in import excise alone, plus missing income tax revenue and GST. It also sabotages efforts designed to encourage smokers to quit. The trade is a money-spinner for organised crime syndicates, which use the proceeds for other, often violent, drug-related offences, and worst of all it acts as a gateway for young Australians to take up vaping, which often leads to smoking cigarettes.

After a Herculean struggle against the might of multinational big tobacco, a fight that took decades, Australia developed the best anti-tobacco regime in the world. Our progressive laws are globally the gold standard for cutting cancer and premature death from smoking.

All that progress is now at risk of being undone because of the snail’s pace in closing regulatory loopholes, leaving lingering complexity in what ought to be a simple task – licensing tobacco shops and closing illegal ones.

The constitutional division between federal, state and local governments is part of the problem, along with the challenges of co-ordinating multi-agency taskforces often involving Border Force, state and federal police, health inspectors, the Australian Taxation Office and councils.

No single authority takes the lead, another example where every agency hopes others will accept responsibility, thus ensuring that nobody does. The state and federal laws need to be updated and harmonised.

As Cancer Council Victoria chief executive Todd Harper says: ‘‘The announcement in December 2022 (the 10-year anniversary of plain packaging in Australia) of intended reform to several national tobacco control laws gives us hope the Albanese government will now do everything it can to eliminate remaining forms of tobacco promotion.’’

The key words here are ‘‘intended reform’’, which must rapidly turn into action. With Labor governments in power everywhere except Tasmania, there is the promising prospect of co-operation and the depoliticisation of this crucial public health issue.

The questionable claims from the growing vaping industry that their products are a safe alternative to cigarettes falls away when the key elements of most readily available vapes are unknown and untested.

How can it be in the public interest to let people get addicted to vapes? How can it be anything but good policy to restrict the availability of something that causes so much harm?

The public nuisance of vape exhalations leading to passive vaping is another cause of friction, and this week in Canada led to a fatal stabbing.

Our legal cigarettes are the most expensive in the world. This is a deliberate and successful policy aimed at taxing the deadly product until it is out of the reach of all but the most determined smokers, while deterring young consumers from ever starting.

The ready availability of untaxed illegally imported cigarettes sold in packets with no health warnings frustrates those programs, and undermines the proven deterrent of the graphic shock photos and plainpackaging laws.

Illegal tobacconists are a blight on our community and should be rubbed out now.

There is no reason to slip back into a society where these harmful products get their claws into young Australians, turning them into addicts for life.

Major crime syndicates need to be disrupted, and big tobacco and their expensive lobbyists doing the rounds of state and federal parliaments, with spurious arguments that vaping is harmless, should be politely shown the door.

Jon Faine is a regular columnist.