Hong Kong customs officials have confiscated nearly HK$300 million (US$39 million) worth of black-market cigarettes so far this year, almost double the amount seized in all of 2019, official figures show.
About two-thirds of the 109 million of cigarettes was seized from a gang believed to be the biggest syndicate behind the illegal tobacco trade in the city, one law enforcement source said.
“Our intelligence indicates this gang, with up to 100 members, has a clear division of labour that includes the import, storage and distribution of illegal cigarettes, as well as street-level retail service,” the source said.
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He said jobless Hongkongers were being offered lucrative pay to deliver illicit cigarettes to buyers across the city.
“Each courier is paid up to HK$20 per carton [containing 10 packs of cigarettes] delivered, and they can deliver more than 100 cartons in one public housing estate, earning as much as HK$2,000 a day,” he said, adding it was more than what takeaway food couriers earned.
The illegal cigarettes are then sold for HK$20 to HK$30 per pack, according to another source.
Each courier is paid up to HK$20 per carton delivered, and they could deliver more than 100 cartons in one public housing estate, earning as much as HK$2,000 a day
A source familiar with the investigation
The source said investigation revealed that the syndicate, one of six gangs of tobacco traders being monitored by law enforcement, was behind four major hauls of cigarettes seized this year.
The latest case came on Monday, when customs officers seized 22 million of the contraband worth HK$59 million in a Sheung Shui hut the gang used as its storage centre. In April and May, customs officers seized 18 million illegal cigarettes from two storage locations in Yuen Long.
In February, the gang tried to smuggle four containers loaded with HK$85 million worth of illegal cigarettes into the city from Japan. That haul, intercepted by customs officers, was the largest seizure of its kind in two decades.
The source said part of the cigarettes seized from this syndicate was for local consumption while the rest was destined for other Asian countries.
The 109 million illicit cigarettes seized by customs through Monday represent far more than are normally confiscated in a typical year.
Customs officers seized 55 million cigarettes worth about HK$151 million last year, 53.4 million worth HK$142 million in 2018, and 60.7 million worth HK$164 million in 2017.
“Customs will continue to combat illicit cigarette activities at all fronts through a multipronged approach,” the Customs and Excise Department said following Monday’s operation.
In Hong Kong, dealing with, possessing, selling or buying illicit cigarettes carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a HK$1 million fine under the Dutiable Commodities Ordinance.
According to the department, members of the public may report any suspected illicit cigarette activities by calling its 24-hour hotline at 2545 6182.