Johannesburg - South Africans should think twice about where they get their next tobacco product as the sale of illegal cigarettes has cost the country R20 billion in the past four years.

The figure was released by the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (Tisa) during a three-day conference in Cape Town.

The conference is attended by local and international law enforcement agencies who are sharing ideas on how to stop the scourge of trade in illicit products.

Besides the huge financial cost, the illicit trade is also used by syndicates to fund other crimes like human trafficking and terrorism.

“We need to reach a few objectives to reduce the illicit trade of cigarettes, which is a problem affecting all countries,” said Tisa chairman Francois van der Merwe.

“Nearly a quarter of cigarettes consumed in this country are illicit and that is why we need joint co-operation, not only with international law enforcement but with our own government as well. We need buy-in from police, the private sector, Sars and the public.”

 

CrimeLine head Yusuf Abramjee said the problem was out of control and had been exacerbated by a poor conviction rate for those involved.

“Syndicates are looking at the tobacco industry as (an) easy target for profit and it is not helped by corruption and bribery within the police. We need a report back from the National Prosecuting Authority on the amount of seizures and convictions.

“Government also needs to take this seriously and we need to educate the public as well to make tip-offs to police.”

South Africa is among the top five traders in illegal cigarettes in the world, with 60 percent of its current stock produced by manufacturers in the country.

The Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng have the highest concentration of illicit product.

Hawks Major-General Dibero Molatjana said that they were dealing with the issue.

“Gone are the days where people can say that police are responsible for this criminal activity. Every month we are destroying illicit cigarettes and the vehicles that transport them.”

Although the illicit trade is proving a problem for a variety of sectors, figures show that some successes are being made.

More than 1 900 busts have been made in the past year, with over 400 million cigarettes seized.

Almost 3 000 law enforcement officials are also being trained to combat illegal smuggling.

“We are training those who are close to the borders and therefore the majority of our programmes are in Limpopo, which shares its borders with other countries,” she said.

Among international delegates assisting local authorities is Howard Pugh of Europol, the EU’s law enforcement unit.

He said there were similarities between the two continents in terms of the way illicit cigarettes were traded.

“Using a multi-agency approach is one way to be better equipped, as working together can help stop trading.” - Cape Argus