Illicit tobacco trade sparks call for joint response by police, customs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 5:13am

The battle against the illegal tobacco trade could be made easier if customs and the police worked together, a veteran police officer says.

Robin Jolly, who was on the force for 33 years before he %retired two years ago, said that although the illegal trade fell within the remit of customs, it could also be an area where police resources might help.

"The police is the largest department in the government. It has many resources and so the force can help out customs officers," Jolly said yesterday at the launch of a concern group he has set up named Hong Kong United Against Illicit Tobacco.

"To my knowledge, the Customs and Excise Department does not have the same surveillance capability as the police force," he said.

Detecting illegal trading required time-consuming and protracted inquiries, and the police have the resources to carry out this type of surveillance, Jolly said.

"Arresting the little people at the shop end - which accounts for a large number of arrests each year - is not going to solve the problem," he said. "If customs is to be successful, then they must invest resources in tackling the problem at the source."

That means instead of focusing on catching the sellers on the street, customs officers should find and go after the suppliers of illegal cigarettes, he said.

Jolly was a motor transport officer before he retired two years ago. He has also served as chief inspector of the anti-triad division for Yau Ma Tei and Tsim Sha Tsui.

"When you buy illicit cigarettes, you are actually supporting the triads," he said.

Jolly also criticised the government for raising the tobacco tax but not, at the same time, pouring more resources into stamping out the illegal trade.

Luisa Tam, executive director of the group, said her research showed the government was forfeiting HK$2.8 billion a year in taxes due to the illicit trade.

Tam said it was important to tackle the illegal tobacco trade because the low cost of illicit cigarettes was enabling teenagers to take up smoking.

She said anyone with information on where illegal cigarettes were being sold could alert the group via its website, so it could inform the authorities.