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Shopping for Illegal Cigarettes in Sydney’s Chinatown

Shop owners are flouting Australia's plain packaged cigarette laws by selling imported fags for less than you'd find them elsewhere in the city.

A pack of imported cigarettes. All photos by the author.

Walk through the bustling streets of Sydney's Chinatown and you'll notice coloured cigarette packaging littering the ground. Although they're common to this area, they're a rare sight in Australia since the government introduced across-the-board plain packaging in December 2012.

On a recent afternoon, I found myself sitting next to a lone young man at a café toying with a metallic blue cigarette packet. I asked where he got it from and he replied, "I got it from a convenience store in Chinatown, you can get it from any one of them."

According to Australia's Department of Health, one of the objectives of the plain packaging was to "reduce the attractiveness and appeal of tobacco products to consumers, particularly young people." Chatting to this young guy, a student from Hong Kong and has been smoking for eight years, plain packaging has seemingly done what was promised. He told me that many of his friends travel to Chinatown to buy these sexier, more colourful packets of cigarettes.

Cigarette packets litter the area

When I asked why he chose to smoke illegal tobacco, he said: "Well the plain packaging is ugly, that's the first reason. The second reason is they're cheaper."

His packet of Mevius Sky Blue cigarettes cost $13 for 25, "It went up from $11, I was pretty frustrated but it's still cheaper than the others," he commented. Coles is currently selling a pack of 50 for almost twice the price per smoke at $50.50.

After our chat, I wondered how available these cheap, attractive, illegal cigarettes are and decided to try buying my own. I stepped into the nearest Chinese convenience store, a hole-in-the-wall type shop, and asked for a pack of Dunhills. After a small hesitation, the guy said yes.

The man in the cafe who told me where to buy the cigarettes

The pack cost me $16. He quickly grabbed my money and handed over the cigarettes. It was a swift transaction. Later I checked the price at a supermarket, they were $27 for 25.

The writing on the pack was Korean and it wasn't the generic olive-green required by Australian law. My friend living in Korea told me the same packet is ₩4800 (around AU$5.60) over there, and the difference in tobacco pricing in Asia is why these retailers can afford to import the product, double the price, and clear a profit without getting close to what you'd pay in a supermarket.

An average plain pack starts at $20, and they're about to get even more expensive with two of the four government-implemented annual tax hikes of 12.5 per cent still remaining.

Despite the ease of the transaction and the lower price, Tobacco Control Manager at Cancer Council New South Wales, Scott Walsberger, believes packets like my Dunhills aren't a big problem. He told VICE that "Evaluations of plain packaging and monitoring of illicit tobacco trade have not found evidence of increased demand for illicit tobacco products."

Similarly, a Quit Victoria spokesperson added, "the introduction of plain packaging has seen no increase in the use or availability of illegal tobacco."

However, not everyone agrees. A member for the Australian Border Force who spoke to VICE anonymously said, "tobacco smuggling is identified as one of the ABF's key operational priorities."

While they couldn't say exactly how and where the illicit tobacco came from for "operational reasons" they did mention that during the first 10 months of 2014-15, there were 71 detections of illicit tobacco in the sea cargo environment. This comprised of 92 tonnes of loose tobacco (including molasses tobacco) and 33 million cigarette sticks, which came to a total of more than $66 million in potential duty evasion.

For all those numbers, only two cases were successfully prosecuted. The first received 33 months imprisonment and the second, two 20-month sentences. Both cases totalled $200,664 in fines and penalties.

With the maximum penalty for tobacco smuggling being 10 years in prison and a fine of up to five times the amount of duty evaded, these prosecutions were comparatively small.

The student at the café told me he'd heard about a store getting busted every now and then, but they'd simply pay a fine and go back to business, sometimes just increasing their tobacco prices to cover the bill.

"It's a risky business but there is a large demand for it. That's why they would risk big punishments for it," he said.

Follow Naeun on Twitter: @naeun_k