Smokes detected: Tobacco mules convicted for smuggling cigarettes in suitcases

Key points

  • A 38-year-old man was caught with more than 50,000 undeclared cigarettes hidden inside his luggage.
  • A 37-year-old and a 70-year-old were also convicted of smuggling tens of thousands of cigarettes into Australia.
  • Law enforcement agencies have linked illegal tobacco profits to organised crime syndicates.

Three men accused of working as “tobacco mules” have been convicted of smuggling 135,600 cigarettes through Melbourne Airport, as part of a months-long crackdown on Australia’s lucrative tobacco black market.

A 38-year-old man was caught with more than 50,000 undeclared cigarettes stuffed inside suitcases and ordered to pay $100,000 in fines, and a 37-year-old and 70-year-old smuggled tens of thousands of cigarettes into the country and were respectively fined $18,000 and $7000.

A suitcase full of cigarette packets seized as part of Operation Silverchalice.Credit:Australian Border Force

They were nabbed during a six-month Australian Border Force (ABF) operation, codenamed Silverchalice, cracking down on the illegal tobacco trade.

The operation has led to the confiscation of about 770,000 cigarettes, nine criminal prosecutions, 15 convictions, 30 months of suspended prison sentences and $140,000 in fines.

There are four outstanding arrest warrants in connection to the probe.

Law enforcement agencies in Australia have linked the illegal tobacco trade to organised crime syndicates.

Law enforcement agencies have linked the illegal cigarette trade to organised crime syndicates.Credit:Australian Border Force

Police say tobacco trafficking is seen by criminals as a low-risk, high-reward activity that rakes in substantial sums of money but without the lengthy prison sentences linked to drug trafficking.

Australia is the most expensive country in the world in which to buy cigarettes, with a 20-pack costing about $40 thanks to a government campaign to reduce smoking through high taxes.

The ABF estimates the illegal trade in tobacco costs the federal government millions of dollars in revenue each year.

In the 2021 financial year, the agency intercepted more than 800 tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco and almost 600 million cigarettes with a combined value of about $2 billion.

ABF superintendent of regional investigations Uriah Turner said there was a common misconception that smuggling tobacco was a victimless crime.

“Organised crime groups capitalise on unwitting smokers looking for cheap cigarettes to make themselves rich and to fund other types of criminal activities that harm our community,” Turner said.

“Criminals will try to hide illicit substances in a variety of ways, however, our officers have many detection methods at their disposal. Officer intuition and the use of innovative technologies are often the driving forces behind these kinds of discoveries.”

People caught smuggling tobacco can face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to five times the amount of the duty costs evaded.

Anyone with information about the importation and exporting of illicit tobacco or cigarettes was urged to contact Border Watch. Information can be provided anonymously.

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