Hong Kong customs arrested three men and confiscated HK$150 million (US$19.3 million) worth of black market cigarettes over the past week as illegal tobacco traders tried to replenish supply to meet demand ahead of the festive season. A customs official on Friday revealed details of the latest haul and said the seized tobacco products were also part of a restock of underground markets in the city and abroad, after authorities uncovered nearly HK$300 million worth of illicit cigarettes last month. He said a preliminary investigation suggested 70 per cent of the 53 million cigarettes discovered in two operations on Thursday last week and Wednesday was for local consumption, while the remainder was destined for overseas markets. In one of five cargo containers seized in the two operations, officers found more than 10 million cigarettes of the Luxembourgish brand Che. The cigarettes are named after the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. It is the first time local authorities have seized this brand of cigarettes. As the packaging was printed with health warnings in Japanese, officers believed the cigarettes were bound for Japan. According to the Customs and Excise Department, the latest hauls pushed the total value of contraband tobacco products seized so far this year to HK$1.91 billion. The volume of illegal tobacco – 694 million cigarettes – discovered this year is much more than any annual haul since 2002. This year’s total is 62 per cent larger than the 427 million illegal cigarettes – worth HK$1.17 billion – customs found in the whole of 2021. If legally imported, this year’s contraband would have generated HK$1.32 billion in tax revenue. Senior Investigator Lam Wai-kit of the customs’ revenue crimes investigation bureau said seizure numbers rose because contraband syndicates had used sea routes to smuggle cigarettes into the city due to the closure of major border checkpoints amid the coronavirus pandemic. Shipping containers could carry larger volumes of the contraband, he said. Hong Kong customs seizes HK$2.2 million in frozen meat from ship off Hong Kong In one of the two latest operations, customs officers intercepted two container trucks on Hoi Fai Road in Tai Kok Tsui at about 9am on Thursday last week. They found 21 million sticks of tobacco in the two cargo containers. Two drivers, aged 54 and 60, were arrested on suspicion of dealing with illicit cigarettes. A subsequent investigation led customs officers to two remote logistics sites in Sheung Shui and Lok Ma Chau. In each location, they found a container packed with untaxed cigarettes. Officers seized 21 million cigarettes from the two containers. On Wednesday, they intercepted a truck outside another logistics site in Sheung Shui. Inside the container the vehicle was carrying, there were 11 million sticks of contraband tobacco. The 59-year-old driver was detained. All three drivers have been released on bail pending further investigation. Lam said around 53 million untaxed cigarettes – worth about HK$150 million – were discovered in the five containers. He said the investigation revealed the same syndicate behind the hauls used different logistics sites to store contraband tobacco products in an attempt to evade detection. He added that each site housed one container stashed with untaxed cigarettes in an effort to reduce financial losses in case other locations were discovered. Hong Kong customs seize HK$180 million worth of black market cigarettes Customs was still determining the origins of the seized goods, he said, adding that the investigation was still under way and further arrests were possible. In Hong Kong, a pack of 20 cigarettes sells for between HK$50 and HK$60, while an illegal equivalent can go for as little as HK$15 on the underground market. Lam said authorities would continue stringent enforcement actions to target the smuggling, storage and peddling of illicit cigarettes. He warned that dealing with, possession of, selling or buying illicit cigarettes were punishable by up to two years in jail and a HK$1 million fine under the Dutiable Commodities Ordinance.