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The Dial-A-Pack Cigarette Gangs

Clifford Lo – Updated on Mar 01, 2009 – SCMP

Illegal cigarettes are being sold for as little as HK$6 a pack to attract customers – part of a sophisticated trafficking operation designed to elude police and customs officers – say law enforcement sources.

The gangs hand out fliers across the city listing brands, a price list and contact numbers – or post them in residents’ letter boxes – and take orders by phone, the sources say.

Customs chiefs are braced for a rise in tobacco smuggling following the 50 per cent rise in tobacco duties announced in last week’s budget speech. The increase pushed the average price of a pack of 20 cigarettes up from HK$29 to HK$39.

The government hopes the rise will persuade between one in five and one in 10 smokers to quit the habit.

“After taking orders, illicit cigarettes are delivered to your home or pickups are arranged in parks or at MTR station exits,” a government source said.

“To avoid being caught in a sting, illegal traffickers will observe buyers and the location of the transaction before doing business. New buyers may be asked to leave money on a park bench before being told where to pick up the goods.”

Mainland visitors, housewives, drug addicts and Vietnamese residents had been recruited to distribute the goods and run the business, this source said. Counterfeits sell for HK$6 to HK$10 a pack; smuggled genuine cigarettes cost HK$15 to HK$17. Another source said most buyers of illegal cigarettes were from lowincome families and the illegal traders did most of their business in public housing estates. Customs officials said crackdowns on areas where the gangs operate had cut into their sales. However, authorities were concerned that the rise in tobacco duties would spur an increase in the trade.

Cross Street in Wan Chai is one of the places where the illegal trade flourishes. The vendors hide the cigarettes in an alley or nearby building.

“Now traffickers have resorted to a phone-order service to evade detection and arrest,” one source said. “Some traffickers only take orders from regular customers or those who can say a password.”

The Customs and Excise Department dealt with 1,570 cases of illegal-cigarette smuggling, distribution, sales and storage last year, 14 per cent fewer than in 2007. Officers arrested 1,170 people and seized more than 73 million cigarettes.

Most of the illegal cigarettes are smuggled from the mainland.

Ben Leung Lun-cheung, head of the department’s land boundary command, said: “We are determined to crack down on the import, storage and sale of illicit cigarettes.”

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