SINGAPORE: More people were nabbed in 2012 for buying contraband cigarettes in Singapore —— an increase of 4.5 per cent. This is according to Singapore Customs’ annual statistics.
Singapore Customs noted that peddlers of contraband cigarettes have become more "creative" by operating in alleys and back lanes, as well as stashing the contraband cigarettes in appliances such as letter boxes, bread wrappers, rice cookers, refrigerators and air compressors.
Lee Boon Chong, senior assistant director—general (intelligence & investigation) at Singapore Customs, said: "They’re getting more creative now in response to our intensified enforcement actions. In the past they used to put big quantities in just one hiding place, but now they’ve learnt to diversify.
"They put small quantities, like four, five packets in one place, and another four, five packets in another place."
At a media briefing on Friday, Singapore Customs said 28,502 offenders were arrested last year in 2012 —— about 2,000 more than in 2011, and a sharp spike from about 19,800 in 2009.
Among them were 400 peddlers who were caught trying to sell the contraband cigarettes in Singapore. In 2011, 458 peddlers were caught.
Also among the 28,502 were those who attempted to bring in duty—unpaid cigarettes through the checkpoints.
However, more than 95 per cent of the total number of offenders (27,726 of 28,502) were not prosecuted, and paid a composition fine.
Under the Customs Act, buyers stand to face hefty composition fines of up to S$5,000 for tobacco—related offences. If prosecuted, the minimum court fine is S$2,000 for first—time offenders and S$4,000 for repeat offenders.
Repeat offenders who are caught with more than 2kg of tobacco products will also face a mandatory jail term.
There has been a consistent drop in the number of peddlers arrested. In 2009, the figure was 635. Mr Lee explained: "We have stepped up our enforcement efforts, as well as joint operations and collaborations with other agencies, so that has helped us to detect more cases and send a very strong deterrent messages to smugglers and peddlers.
"And therefore we realised that over the last two years, the number of smugglers and peddlers have gone down."
Customs officials also smashed four contraband cigarette syndicates last year.
These syndicates attempted to smuggle contraband cigarettes into Singapore via land, air, and sea.
One of these syndicates deployed a network of vehicles that included prime movers and vans to transfer the illegal loot from a storage facility to the Western part of Singapore for distribution to various locations.
The cigarettes were hidden in the space behind the drivers’ seats. In this operation, eight offenders were arrested, and about 40,000 packets of contraband cigarettes seized. Singapore Customs said it is working with its partners in neighbouring countries to tackle this problem.
Still, street demand for contraband cigarettes is strong.
Mr Lee said: "I think the persistent street demand is mainly driven by the price differential between legal and illegal cigarettes. So we do observe that there are people —— buyers —— who actively go around to hunt for peddlers to buy a packet of illegal cigarettes."
Singapore Customs said it will focus on tackling this problem of demand.
From March 2013, each stick of duty—paid cigarette will be imprinted with a series of small stripes. This revised mark will help officers and the public to differentiate between legal and illegal cigarettes.
Singapore Customs said it has managed to keep the contraband cigarette supply in check, through strong enforcement with the police and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
The amount of contraband cigarettes seized continued to fall from 1.9 million packets in 2011 to 1.5 million in 2012. Singapore Customs added that revenue collected from the sale of duty—paid cigarettes continued to increase —— another indication that the contraband cigarette situation is kept in check.
Singapore Customs also released figures on liquor offenders and fuel gauge offenders. There was a 16 per cent drop in liquor offenders in 2012, from about 2,300 offenders in 2011 to about 1,900 last year. The majority of these cases were minor offences committed by travellers coming through Singapore’s checkpoints.
For fuel gauge offences, 17 were prosecuted, a slight increase from 2011’s figure of 14. Under Singapore law, Singapore—registered vehicles must have at least three—quarters of a tank of petrol when leaving the country.
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