Customs accused of ignoring travellers' duty-free cigarette limits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 12:00am

The Customs and Excise Department has been criticised for letting travellers pass through checkpoints with more than the permitted allowance of duty-free cigarettes.

The commission also accused the department of failing to implement a rule that travellers who leave Hong Kong for less than 24 hours should not be allowed to return with duty-free items.

Residents can only bring in 60 duty-free cigarettes when they arrive back from abroad. The government estimates that more than 1.4 billion duty-free cigarettes are brought into the SAR each year, with a duty potential of $1.13 billion.

But in June and July, undercover audit agents at the Lowu checkpoint found 32 residents carrying more cigarettes than the approved limit, but none was checked by Customs officers when they arrived in Hong Kong.

One man followed by audit agents was found to have brought 800 duty-free cigarettes through Customs without being detected.

'The small percentage of travellers checked at the counters . . . means that abuses of duty-free concessions have little chance of being detected . . . It [is] necessary for the department to review the need for increased Customs checking,' the report said.

Of the 36,420 inbound travellers who passed through selected counters at Lowu in June and July, audit agents observed that only 322 - less than one per cent - were checked.

The commission also questioned a 'weakness' in the department's policy that allows those caught to either pay a $16 duty and licence fee of $1.60 per pack, or surrender the items. As most popular cigarette brands sell for $10 per pack in duty-free shops, the abusers still get them cheaper than the market price of $32 per pack.

'Urgent action is needed to rectify the weakness, to ensure that adequate penalties are imposed,' the report said.

The commission also criticised the department for failing to implement measures to prevent travellers who have left the SAR for less than 24 hours from bringing back duty-free items, and for not introducing a suggested total ban on Hong Kong residents bringing in duty-free cigarettes.

It recommended closer monitoring of duty-free shops.

A Customs spokesman said last night that the department would take serious note of the observations and study how to improve operations.