The number of people arrested over illegal cigarette activities has nearly doubled since the tobacco tax was increased by 50 per cent in February – the youngest a boy of 11 and the oldest a 95-year-old man.
Chow Chi-kwong, head of customs’ revenue and general investigation bureau, said illegal traders tried to use children to smuggle cigarettes to lower the risk of being detected.
He said the 11-year-old boy was used by his mother to carry a paper bag containing 820 duty-not-paid cigarettes as they crossed from the mainland to Hong Kong in Sha Tau Kok. The boy was released after investigations found he was innocent but his mother was prosecuted for possessing dutiable cigarettes.
Another youngster arrested was a 15-year-old recruited to make deliveries on phone orders for illicit cigarettes, Chow said. He was among 57 people arrested between March and November for involvement in offering illicit cigarettes phone order services. A total of 290,000 cigarettes were seized.
The 95-year-old man was caught selling contraband cigarettes in Kwai Chung in March. He was among a growing number of elderly people selling illicit cigarettes to other old people and their friends on public-housing estates and in parks and cooked-food areas.
Officers said elderly peddlers generally sold a single pack of illicit cigarettes rather than a whole carton and could make HK$2 or HK$3 a pack. “The profit is not big, but a little money is enough for them,” Chow said.
Officers said they might obtain the cigarettes by buying them duty-free when returning from the mainland. Chow said customs would step up patrols to stop the trade. He warned that buyers and sellers faced a maximum penalty of a HK$1 million fine and two months’ jail.
The Customs and Excise Department recorded a 91 per cent rise in the number of arrests between March and November – to 1,794 from 935 in the same period last year.
Cases of cigarette smuggling, distribution, storage and selling rose by 87 per cent to 2,301 between March and November compared with 1,229 in the same period last year.
But seizures of illicit cigarettes dropped by 25 per cent from 63 million between March and November last year to 47 million during the same period this year.
Customs attributed the increase in the number of arrests and cases to stringent enforcement action.
Explaining the drop in seizures of contraband cigarettes, Chow said: “I believe the [cigarette] syndicates also notice our enforcement action. They lower their storage to cut losses. Before the increase in tobacco tax, we could seize more than two million sticks of illicit cigarettes in a single major case. After April, we seize fewer than a million sticks in a case.”
Customs’ figures show the number of taxed cigarettes sold in the city dropped by 26 per cent to 14.84 million between March and November from 20.11 million in the same period last year.
Last month, the newly formed Tobacco Control Concern Group, comprising cigarette makers and retailers, said the 50 per cent increase in tobacco tax had failed to reduce the number of smokers and had instead promoted an increase in sales of illicit cigarettes.
Chow said the situation was under control after stronger enforcement measures were introduced in March.
“It is an endless war and we still have to fight,” he said, adding that customs would spare no effort in combating such illegal activities and would closely monitor the situation.
He urged people to report such activity on customs’ 24-hour hotline, 2545 6182.
Meanwhile, the number of travellers who were ordered to pay penalties after being caught bringing duty-not-paid cigarettes into the city without declaration at control points rose by 71 per cent this year after the 50 per cent increase in tobacco tax.
The department recorded 4,421 such cases between March and November, compared with 2,584 cases in the same period last year.