A lucrative black market for cigarettes is fuelling an increase in armed robberies, with criminals targeting dairies and stealing tobacco products to order.
Some dairy owners are toying with the idea of pulling cigarettes from their shelves, but the decision is not an easy one with tobacco products making up a large amount of their business.
In the last seven weeks, robbers have targeted at least 17 Christchurch businesses, including dairies, pubs and bakeries. That compares to 12 in the first five months of the year. The offenders have generally been males, aged in their mid to late teens. They commonly wore disguises and carried weapons, including guns, hammers, knives and axes. Arrests have been made in several cases, but many remain unsolved. The majority of businesses targeted recently have been dairies. Cigarettes were often taken.
Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Ford said he believed many of the robbers were stealing to order rather than for personal use. "There appears to be a strong black market for tobacco. It is a very valuable commodity. They [the robbers] are taking as much as they can." Ford said police were making arrests, but "other people are filling the void and continuing on with it". "Investigators are working their guts out to identify offenders for these robberies. We're following some very strong lines of inquiry."
He urged dairy owners to be vigilant. They needed to look at the layout of their stores and make sure they had quality security cameras installed. "Comply with their instructions. The last thing we want is people getting hurt."
The price of tobacco products in New Zealand has climbed steadily over the last decade as a result of tax increases. A pack of 20 cigarettes is expected to cost about $30 by 2020.
Retail NZ spokesman Greg Harford said robberies were an "ongoing issue nationally" and some people were "getting hurt and feeling threatened". Dairy owners had discussed removing cigarettes from their shelves to avoid becoming a target, Harford said. However, in some cases, up to 60 per cent of a store's turnover was from the sale of tobacco. "[Dairies] are a lot of hard work for these people to run so if you took away major product lines it would seriously undermine the viability of these businesses."
The One Stop Convenience Store on Breezes Rd, Aranui, was robbed by two men in June. An employee was hit in the face with a hammer as the pair fled with cigarettes and cash. The dairy's owner, Dhairya Mahida, said cigarette sales were a major part of his business and he had no plans to pull them from his shelves. The profit margin for each pack was about 7 per cent. "At the same time, they [customers] are buying smokes they are also buying something else and that's major revenue for us."
Aggravated robbery carries a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment.
Criminologist Greg Newbold said he believed many people who committed robberies were "reckless young no hopers . . . who don't really think ahead". "The chances of being caught is the greatest disincentive or incentive."
Earlier this month, a group of men and women were arrested after hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tobacco was allegedly taken from Imperial Tobacco, a tobacco factory in Wellington. At the time, police said: "The unlawful and unregulated sale of stolen tobacco is a significant issue in the community and police want to warn those who purchase stolen or cut price tobacco that they may be committing a criminal offence."
A Customs spokeswoman said evidence suggested the black market for tobacco in New Zealand was not as big as other parts of the world, like Europe and Asia. A 2010 estimate by the tobacco industry found illicit tobacco represented about 3.3 per cent of tobacco consumed in New Zealand, the spokeswoman said.
30 August 2016
BLAIR ENSOR AND SAM SHERWOOD
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