Friday, March 1, 2024

Violent gangs selling illicit nicotine vapes, threatening and intimidating tobacconists in QLD

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Illicit vape dealers are allegedly intimidating small shop owners into selling them their businesses – and threatening violence if they do not comply. 

The tactic – believed to be used by groups with links to organised crime – offers them a legitimate shopfront to sell their nicotine-filled vapes, which are often illegally imported from China.

One cigarette-shop owner even told Daily Mail Australia that her car tyres had been let down and her wheel nuts removed after she challenged one of the alleged gangs.

The shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous amid fears for her safety, said the situation was ‘completely out of control’. 

‘I took my car in for a service earlier this year and my mechanic said to me “somebody must really hate you – you have five wheel nuts missing off your car”,’ she said.

‘I have a late model BMW which gets serviced on a regular basis because I drive lots of miles. There’s no way in the world those wheel nuts came off by themselves.’

The shop owner (pictured) – who asked to remain anonymous – alleges that gangs in the illicit vape trade have removed the wheel nuts on her car after she resisted their demand to sell her store to them

The woman, who owns ten tobacconists across Queensland and employs around 50 people, said there had been a five-fold increase in the number of illicit vape shops operating in the area. 

‘In January this guy came into one of our shops and stood over the girl behind the counter, telling her to go and tell her boss – me – that if I didn’t sell him the shop, he would run me out of town,’ she said.

‘He said he had started up in other towns and driven other shops out of business. He said they don’t survive and he ends up buying the shop anyway.’

The shop owner, who is in her 60s, said she had contacted the police but was told they could do nothing.  

‘I asked a detective superintendent how can I protect myself and he said “we can’t do anything until they hurt you”,’ she said.   

‘The health inspectors don’t even go into those shops – they are scared of them.’

An estimated 90 million vapes have been imported into Australia in the last year alone - with most coming from China

An estimated 90 million vapes have been imported into Australia in the last year alone – with most coming from China

She added: ‘I’ve heard of another guy who complained [about the intimidation] who was rung up and told “if you don’t shut your mouth I’ve got a bullet for you”.’ 

Currently, the only way to buy vapes legally is through a prescription from your doctor. 

However, convenience stores across the country are making a fortune selling unregulated vapes filled with nicotine but not labelled that they have the highly addictive liquid in them.

Importers often do not disclose their nicotine content to get them past inspectors – with an estimated 90 million vapes being imported illegally into Australia in the past year.  

 Often, these are bought by children, with schools and parents asking for stronger regulation to combat the surge in vaping. 

The shop owner (pictured, right) said she has asked the police for help but was told: 'we can’t do anything until they hurt you'

The shop owner (pictured, right) said she has asked the police for help but was told: ‘we can’t do anything until they hurt you’

Last month, the Queensland shop owner was driving her sick husband to a hospital appointment when she noticed her tyre pressure warning gauge was on. 

‘Six weeks prior to that I had new tyres put on my car,’ she said. 

‘We called into the service station and all of them were half-flat.’

The next day, her tyres were let down again – an act of intimidation she firmly blames on the gangs.

Her adult son was also recently followed and watched by a group of angry-looking men after he helped out at one of her stores.  

‘I’m now very aware of my surroundings all the time,’ she added. 

‘These guys just want to intimidate people and they believe they are above the law.

‘A shop will be raided and within five hours they will be trading again. They are making millions of dollars – it’s all about money. It’s just beyond belief this is happening in Australia.’

The woman wrote to Health Minister Mark Butler but is yet to receive a response.

‘He hasn’t even acknowledged my email. And they created this black market. It wasn’t the Queensland Government – although they have helped it – it was the federal government who created it by being greedy,’ she said.

She has even considered buying body cameras for her staff but decided against it because she does not want to ‘put the fear of god’ in them.

‘We’ve just got to make sure that these guys are shut down,’ she said. 

Theo Foukkare, CEO of the Australian Association of Convenience Stores whose members sell cigarettes’ in shops, said he had heard of some retailers who had been on the receiving end of threats and intimidation.

‘We’ve heard of people who come in and say “if you don’t stock our products I’ll burn your shop down”,’ he said.

‘Other retailers have been told “if you don’t sell me your business, I’ll open up next door and put you out of business”. There are these types of tactics that are happening which, generally, law-abiding retailers don’t want anything to do with it and in a lot of cases they give in out of fear.

He added: ‘The gangs just want a legitimate business that fronts as a retail store selling illegal products to unsuspecting Australians.’

Vaping has been branded a 'public health menace' by Health Minister Mark Butler

Vaping has been branded a ‘public health menace’ by Health Minister Mark Butler

The Australian Association of Convenience Stores counts British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Imperial Brands among its manufacturing members.

The association, which also represents petrol station retailers, advocates for the legalisation and regulation of vapes.     

‘The fines associated with importing and selling nicotine vapes are extremely weak currently,’ said Mr Foukkare.

‘We now have scenarios where organised criminals who trade in illicit goods have switched their attention to nicotine vaping products because they can make more money than illicit drugs and not really feel the wrath of the law.’

Mr Foukkare estimates that 90 million vapes were imported illegally in the last year alone, with the vast majority coming from China. 

‘When you can land them at $5 a pop, you can sell them anywhere from $35 to $50 at retail so you can start to work out where the margin is and why the attractiveness is there,’ he said.

Mr Foukkare blasted the current situation where many importers of illegal vapes were getting around it by not disclosing their nicotine content. 

‘This then comes through to a wholesaler who sells it to anyone who will buy it,’ he said.

‘The other challenge that we have is that anyone who will buy it generally has no morals or ethics so they sell it to children as well.

‘The products that they are selling are 100 per cent unregulated – no electrical safety standards, no maximum nicotine content, no ingredients’ disclosure – and they are generally only available through cash so they are avoiding GST.

‘Legitimate retailers are getting screwed every day.’

Mr Foukkare slammed the response of the authorities.  

‘The police don’t do anything – that’s part of the problem. They just say it’s a federal government issue and the federal government says it is a state problem because it’s managed by the state tobacco act so you can quickly see why we have a s*** show,’ he said.

It comes as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government is said to be weighing up a crackdown on the vaping industry.

Health Minister Mark Butler pledged to ‘stamp out the public health menace’ by bringing in a raft of measures, including banning vape flavours, placing warning labels on individual product packaging and introducing permits for importers bringing vapes into the country.

However advocates of vaping strongly oppose further restrictions.

The Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association argues that e-cigarettes remain an important tool which can help smokers quit.

Worrying vaping facts 

– Many vapes contain nicotine making them addictive

– Vapes can contain the same harmful chemicals found in cleaning products, nail polish remover, weed killer and bug spray

– Vapes can leave young people at increased risk of depression and anxiety

– The nicotine in one vape can equal 50 cigarettes – depending on the size of the vape and nicotine strength, it can be much higher

– Young people who vape are 3 times as likely to take up smoking cigarettes

– Vape aerosol is not water vapour

– Vaping has been linked to lung disease

– Vapes can cause long-lasting damaging effects on the brain and physical development

Source: NSW Government

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