Asian customs agencies are set to start pooling their efforts next month to crack down on cigarette smugglers using the 'merry-go-round' ruse to trade their illicit wares around the region. July 1 had been proposed as the launch date for a new regional effort to share anti-cigarette-smuggling intelligence, initially among 16 Asian countries and regions, Commissioner of Customs and Excise Timothy Tong Hin-ming said yesterday. The new system was proposed by the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department in response to new tactics by which the smugglers ship containers of cigarettes through a series of countries in three continents before delivering them to their final destination. Hong Kong enforcers have dubbed it the merry-go-round. Under the new monitoring and notification system, customs administrations of an initial 16 signatories will share information swiftly with each other and through a Regional Intelligence Liaison Office, at present based in Beijing. Mr Tong was speaking at a news conference at the start of the two-day inaugural meeting of the World Customs Organisation Contact Points for Anti-Cigarette Smuggling Operations in the Asia-Pacific Region hosted by his department. Smugglers started using the new tactics after Hong Kong customs seized 24 containers of illicit cigarettes valued at $30.8 billion in 2001, said the deputy head of the Customs Revenue and General Investigation Bureau, David Fong Tai-wai. 'Taking a circuitous route through countries having rather remote trade links, the smugglers thought they could lower the risk of being spotted,' he explained. But the new system of monitoring and notification should help in thwarting the smuggling attempts, he said. No concrete figures are available on the size of the illicit trade, but Mr Tong said consumption statistics indicated that more than two-thirds of the cigarettes smoked in Asia could be smuggled.