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May 17th, 2015:

Tobacco industry threatens to launch super-cheap ciggies as officials want more power to seize illicit tobacco

The tobacco industry has threatened to launch super-cheap cigarettes costing just A$9 a pack in response to a growing black market in cheap, illegal tobacco, which health officials claim they are powerless to seize.

The NSW Cancer Council has slammed the move by the tobacco industry as a desperate attempt to attract new smokers. NSW Labor says the government must “get serious” about tackling smuggled tobacco, after a rise in illegal sales at retailers throughout Sydney.

NSW Health has told a review of tobacco laws that its inspectors have detected increased sales of illicit tobacco, which is packaged without health warnings and is sometimes blatantly labelled “illegal tobacco”.

Over the past two years, illegal sales were detected 28 times at retailers throughout Sydney, including at Haymarket, Glebe, Marrickville, Earlwood, Ashfield, Harris Park, Auburn, Wakeley, Strathfield, Punchbowl and Canterbury. Of those, 13 have not yet been successfully prosecuted.

Despite the emerging problem, the health department’s powers extend only to photographing and taking samples of illegal tobacco, and inspectors are unable to seize the products. It called for laws to be strengthened.

Contraband tobacco is typically sold cheaply, undercutting the price of legal products. It is usually imported from overseas and avoids quarantine, health checks, taxes and plain packaging warning people of the danger of smoking. It can also contain noxious chemicals and mould.

Health inspectors say retailers caught with illegal tobacco frequently claim it is not for sale, despite possessing large quantities beyond that which could reasonably be considered for personal use.

British American Tobacco Australia has suggested its own fix to the growing market for illegal “chop chop”, or unbranded loose tobacco, saying it will consider launching a cheap “make your own” cigarette brand to compete for market share.

It would involve selling “very cheap” loose tobacco, rolled by smokers at home using a high-tech cigarette-making machine. The company says the product could equate to $9 for 25 cigarettes. At present, the cheapest such pack is about $15.

Cancer Council NSW tobacco control manager Scott Walsberger said the plan was a “desperate attempt by the industry to recruit and retain smokers”. Data showed the use of illicit tobacco had declined in recent years, he said.

But NSW Labor’s health spokesman Walt Secord said international research showed illicit tobacco consumption is expected to surpass legal tobacco worldwide within five years. He offered bi-partisan support for “sensible and tough proposals” such as tougher laws and community education, adding “it is time the Baird government got serious about tackling the problem of dodgy smokes”.

Health Minister Jillian Skinner said the government was “committed to strengthening measures which will stop the sale of illegal tobacco”. She did not detail the timetable for reform.

A NSW Health spokeswoman said the department was seeking to have quantities of illegal tobacco deemed to be for retail sale and to extend the power of inspectors to seize the product.

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