New Zealand's expensive cigarettes are making us the target of international smugglers

Customs say New Zealand is being increasingly targeted by international cigarette smuggling syndicates because of the price of a pack of smokes.

They seized 1.8 million cigarettes and rubbish bags full of cash in what's been called the country's largest ever tobacco fraud investigation.

But it could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Eleven pallets of Chinese-branded cigarettes, none of which were declared, were smuggled and sold in commercial quantities to different buyers around Auckland.

"This is about greed," Customs investigations manager Bruce Berry told Newshub.

"This is about making money and organised crime is about taking advantage of that."

It all started with a tip-off about a man selling cheap cigarettes in Auckland. Customs linked that person to a local importing company.

They then found 340,000 cigarettes concealed inside a shipping container brought in from China by the same company.

A search of multiple Auckland homes and three storage containers would later uncover more cigarettes, and more than $2 million in cash stuffed inside five black rubbish sacks.

Tobacco is now a drug of choice for international smuggling cartels. In the past 12 months, Customs has prosecuted seven different cases against cigarette smugglers.

"What we have seen is a rise in the commercial smuggling of cigarettes through organised crime," says Mr Berry. "We have definitive links to that to several of our operations."

Perhaps it's no surprise we've become a target, considering how much cigarettes are now worth in New Zealand.

In 2013, a pack of 20 cost $16.10, by 2016 it was $21.50 and now the average price of a pack is $25.23 - an increase of about $9 over five years.

"Relative to income, New Zealand is probably the most expensive place on the planet to be a smoker at the moment," says Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) spokesperson Ben Youdan.

He says the annual 10 percent tax hikes on cigarettes are not helping people quit anymore, but have been seen as an opportunity for gangs.

"Clearly that's creating a more lucrative and opportunistic market for people to be more organised about bringing some of the illicit product in."

In this case at least, the illicit trade in Auckland has been well and truly dented - although the syndicate that smuggled this haul operated unimpeded for years.

An Auckland businessman linked to the seizure tried to flee the country after his property was raided, but was later arrested at the border.

Police have frozen assets including luxury cars and property as part of the investigation.


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