Butting in

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 July, 2009, 12:00am

Smoking is not as ingrained in the fabric of life here as it is on the mainland - according to 2007-08 data from the Tobacco Control Office, smokers make up only 11.8 per cent of Hong Kong's population - but the smuggling of cigarettes over the border, both counterfeit and genuine, remains a problem. In one March bust alone, customs officials seized HK$7.5 million worth of cigarettes and arrested 54 people. The total amount seized that month was 9.1 million sticks, worth HK$17.8 million.

According to Fung Hoi-yan, acting divisional commander of the New Territories Anti-Illicit Cigarette Investigation Division, roughly 30 per cent of cigarettes seized are counterfeit.

The cigarettes are distributed by gangs working in places such as Mong Kok and Wan Chai who hand out flyers with contact details. Tactics employed to avoid arrest include selling only to regular customers, making buyers say a password, delivering to buyers' homes or arranging pickups in MTR stations.

With February's 50 per cent rise in tobacco duty, the average cost of a pack of 20 cigarettes rose from HK$29 to HK$39. Smuggled genuine cigarettes sell for about HK$15 to HK$17 while counterfeits can be as cheap as HK$6.

The maximum penalty for trading in illicit cigarettes is a HK$1 million fine and two years' imprisonment.

Fung says authorities have made significant progress since March in catching traders who conduct their business on mobile phones.

'I think the most important problem [concerns] the examination of the people passing through our checkpoints,' Fung says. 'There are many, many passengers and there are many, many vehicles coming into Hong Kong every day and if we had to examine all of them we would suffocate the trade flow between Hong Kong and China.

'We have to be selective,' Fung adds. 'We have to work based on our intelligence.'