Australia's illegal tobacco turf war escalates; Government announces $188 million to stop smuggling

Australia’s tobacco turf war has escalated.  

Gangs are using youths to steal tobacco and firebomb stores and now the government is moving fast to crack down on the black market. 

It's announced an AU$188 million fund to stop cigarettes being smuggled through the border.

Like a bomb, explosions continuously punctured Melbourne’s night sky overnight on Thursday, as flames engulfed a small neighbourhood tobacco store. 

Each blast caused debris to fire everywhere. 

"It was going on for like minutes and minutes," said one woman near the scene. 

It’s part of a string of suspected arson attacks in the city, fuelled by rival underworld gangs battling for control of the lucrative tobacco black market.  

In one case, they used fireworks to try gain access to a shop. They fail, so the four men trying to break in throw a fiery missile that didn’t make it either. 

They try to light fabric on fire, which fails too. Then, a quick kick - but the firebomb still doesn't explode. 

The issue has escalated in recent months.   

Australian authorities call it "earn or burn" - where gangs target small tobacco stores and force them to either sell their smuggled smokes or go up in flames. 

It’s because Australia is one of the most expensive countries to be a smoker, where a pack costs AU$50 at retail price but just $20 on the black market. 

"Illegal cigarettes and illegal tobacco are an ATM for organised crime," said Australia health minister Mark Butler. 

AU$1.7 billion-worth of illegal cigarettes were seized at the border last year, plus almost 900 tonnes of loose-leaf tobacco.  

This week, the Australian government announced $188 million towards cracking down on the black market - targeting what’s being smuggled in at the border.  

The government hopes $188m will calm down the turf war before it claims a life.