The investigation is the biggest cross-agency operation in the Tax Office’s history. (Supplied: Queensland Police)
More than $60 million worth of illegally-grown tobacco has been seized in the largest cross-agency operation in the Australian Tax Office’s history.
Police and Border Force officers raided properties at Pine Creek and North Isis, south of Bundaberg, following an 18-month investigation.
About 53.5 acres of tobacco was located in various states from seedlings to ready to be harvested crop,” said Detective Sergeant Andrew Self.
Detective Sergeant Self said 30 tonnes of tobacco plants as well as 45,000 seedlings have now been destroyed.
He said the scale of the operations came as a shock even to police.
“We’ve had to engage local contractors to plough and slash those crops into the ground.”
No arrests were made and police believe the growers fled hours before the raids.
Police uncovered almost 30 tonnes of illegally grown tobacco plants. (Supplied: Queensland Police)
Detective Sergeant Self said they were initially alerted to the illegal farming through a series of tip-offs to CrimeStoppers and when police began to realise the scale of the operation, they called in the ATO.
“The illegal production of tobacco is the domain of the Australian Tax Office, with respect to their excise act,” he said.
Growing tobacco without an excise licence has been illegal in Australia for more than a decade.
Interstate organised crime syndicate possibly behind the operation
Police said they were investigating whether an interstate organised crime syndicate is behind the farms.
Detective Sergeant Self said police believe the growers may move between Victoria and Queensland to tend to the crops and organise planting and picking.
He said some of the tobacco had been packaged to be sold overseas but was also sold at local markets.
“Some of these profits may have gone overseas, or the tobacco may have been shipped overseas. We’re not exactly sure where it’s gone at this stage,” he said.
Police said it took a long time to identify the locations of the crops because they were hidden at the back of large lots of land.
Landowners likely didn’t know
Police said they do not believe the owners of the land were aware of the illegal operations.
“They’re leasing the land off the farmers, pretending they’re farming something else such as sweet potato or whatever else,” said Detective Sergeant Self.
“The land owners have no need to check on the produce… and that’s how they were getting away with it.”
He said workers hired to pick the crops were also kept in the dark.
“I have absolutely no doubt that the people picking the crops, whether they be backpackers or whoever they were, would have no idea that the tobacco crops were illegal.”
Police said they “highly doubt” the illegal tobacco farms are isolated to the Bundaberg region.
No charges have been laid over the raids and the investigation is now in the hands of the ATO.