Hong Kong Customs launches operation “Tempest” to combat illicit cigarette activities

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1st March 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong Customs recently conducted a large-scale operation codenamed “Tempest” in mid-February, targeting illicit cigarette activities across the territory. The operation aimed to enhance enforcement efforts to combat the smuggling and distribution of illicit cigarettes. As of 28th February, the Customs department has made significant progress, detecting 560 cases related to illicit cigarettes.

During the operation, Customs seized approximately 16 million suspected illicit cigarettes, along with 1,760 grams of cigars and 400 grams of manufactured tobacco products. The total estimated market value of the seized items is around $62 million, with a potential duty of $43 million. In addition, Customs arrested 538 individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 83, and detained three vehicles suspected of being involved in the distribution of illicit cigarettes.

Collaborating with the Tobacco and Alcohol Control Office of the Department of Health, Customs cracked down on the distribution of illicit cigarette promotion leaflets in public housing estates and the sale of illicit cigarettes through telephone orders.

At the cross-boundary smuggling level, Customs intensified efforts to combat tobacco product smuggling at various control points, including airports, ports, land boundaries, railways, and ferries. They successfully detected 17 cases of illicit cigarette smuggling. Furthermore, Customs imposed penalties on 481 incoming passengers for offences compoundable under the Dutiable Commodities Ordinance, amounting to a total of $2 million in penalties. Approximately 90,000 suspected duty-not-paid illicit cigarettes, 1,760 grams of suspected duty-not-paid cigars, and 400 grams of suspected duty-not-paid manufactured tobacco products were seized during these operations.

One notable case during the operation involved the detection of a large-scale cigarette smuggling operation. Through risk assessment and intelligence analysis, Customs officers selected a 40-foot container declared as carrying plastic boxes and mouse pads for inspection at the Kwai Chung Customhouse Cargo Examination Compound. The inspection revealed 4.2 million suspected illicit cigarettes concealed within the container.

Customs also targeted illicit cigarette storage centres in downtown areas. They shut down a large-scale mobile illicit cigarette storage centre and raided a medium goods vehicle and a 40-foot container parked in an open-air parking lot in Tuen Mun. The search yielded approximately 3.2 million and 5.4 million suspected illicit cigarettes in the vehicle and container, respectively. A 26-year-old man suspected to be connected with the case was arrested.

Additionally, Customs cracked down on smaller illicit cigarette storage and distribution centres, including a subdivided unit in Sham Shui Po commonly referred to as a “subdivided room.” Around 350,000 suspected illicit cigarettes were seized, and a 53-year-old woman connected to the case was arrested.

At the peddling and retail level, Customs arrested a total of 35 individuals, including 25 buyers and 10 sellers, in various districts across Hong Kong. Most of these cases involved the buying and selling of small quantities of illicit cigarettes for personal use.

Customs will continue their investigations into all the aforementioned cases, aiming to trace the source and flow of the illicit cigarettes. The department remains vigilant in its efforts to combat illicit cigarette activities through risk assessment, intelligence analysis, and interception at the source.

It is essential to note that smuggling is a serious offence, and under the Import and Export Ordinance, individuals found guilty of importing or exporting unmanifested cargo may face a maximum fine of $2 million and imprisonment for up to seven years.