Show download pdf controls
  • ATO action to reduce the gap

    We administer tobacco duty collection jointly with Home Affairs, and we work together with other government partners to control the illicit tobacco trade.

    On this page:

    Illicit Tobacco Taskforce

    Illicit tobacco is a serious organised crime priority of the Australian Government. Illicit tobacco is a commodity just like any other illicit or illegal commodity. It is used by criminals to fund more serious and insidious crimes that undermine Australia’s national interests. Innovation in dealing with serious crime groups is essential in a sophisticated and prosperous country like Australia.

    On 8 May 2018, the Treasurer announced five tobacco-related budget revenue measures to collectively protect current and future Commonwealth revenue legitimately due from the tobacco industry.

    We are part of the multi-agency Illicit Tobacco Taskforce (ITTF), established on 1 July 2018 to combat illicit tobacco smuggling. The taskforce is contained within the broader Department of Treasury Black Economy Taskforce. Funding and staffing is provided by the:

    • Australian Border Force within Home Affairs
    • Australian Taxation Office
    • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC)
    • Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC)
    • Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP).

    A budget of $70.2 million for a four-year period was provided to Home Affairs for distribution to the relevant agencies. Led by the ABF, the taskforce has been phased in over four years for partner agencies and five years for the ABF, when it becomes an ongoing measure. The ATO is funded to support the ITTF under a separate measure.

    Through its joint-agency approach, the taskforce has a full array of powers to effectively investigate, prosecute and dismantle serious organised crime groups responsible for illicit tobacco smuggling, domestic cultivation, manufacturing and distribution. The taskforce works alongside Commonwealth and state law enforcement partners to implement the law.

    The ITTF enhances the whole-of-government response and capability to gather intelligence and investigate illicit tobacco activity. It targets, disrupts and dismantles crime syndicates, and prosecutes people involved. It brings together a range of agencies with distinct but complementary powers and functions, to work collaboratively to protect Commonwealth revenue and enhance border protection.

    Using enhanced investigative and intelligence gathering methodologies, the taskforce is disrupting illicit tobacco activity by:

    • targeting supply chain vulnerabilities both within and outside Australia through enhanced data analysis, complex profile referrals to the Home Affairs National Profiling Centre, liaison and operational engagement with international law enforcement partners and customs organisations
    • targeting the criminal wealth of the actors in cooperation with the Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce and the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce, aligning ITTF efforts with Capability 2 of the Commonwealth Organised Crime Strategic Framework in targeting the criminal economy
    • using specialist law enforcement capabilities available to partner agencies in pursuit of the ITTF mission
    • leveraging the data-mining and financial analysis capabilities of AUSTRAC and the ATO to trace the illicit financial flows derived from illicit tobacco trafficking domestically and across Australia’s border to generate a coherent picture of the illicit tobacco financial activity and generate opportunities for disruption
    • working closely with the CDPP in the preparation of cogent briefs of evidence in both the criminal and civil (proceeds of crime) jurisdictions
    • working with domestic and international law enforcement and customs bodies, based on operational requirements, to leverage additional capabilities and support for ITTF operations.

    The achievements of the ITTF over the past few years demonstrate the effectiveness of Australia's enhanced approach in tackling illicit tobacco in the community. We use the backdrop of the experience of other countries, including the United Kingdom, the strategic insights of ACIC, and the findings of the Black Economy Taskforce to guide our approach.

    Tobacco legislation

    A range of policy and regulatory reform measures have been passed in recent years to tackle the trade in illicit tobacco.

    The 2018–19 Budget Black Economy Package – combatting illicit tobacco removed the option for importers to enter tobacco products into a licensed warehouse. The legislation took effect from 1 July 2019.

    On 16 August 2018, the government passed the Treasury Laws Amendment (Illicit Tobacco Offences) Bill with a new tobacco offence regime. This received royal assent on 24 August 2018.

    The 2016–17 Budget included an increase in the range of enforcement options available for illicit tobacco offences, including penalties.

    As part of our contribution to the ITTF and government, we continue to provide advice and assistance about the laws regarding illicit tobacco.

    Media approaches

    Our media approach to tobacco crop seizures has a strong focus on local media. This has led to an increase in referrals made by members of the community.

    We use a range of communication tactics, including media releases, to let people know about the risks of being associated with the illicit tobacco trade. This approach increases community awareness and ensures that people continue to refer illicit tobacco crops to state or federal law enforcement agencies or the ATO.

    We undertake targeted advertising to select communities in regional Australia, providing awareness and understanding of the signs of illegal tobacco growing operations and how to report suspicious activity.

    These strategies facilitate an informed community and an assurance that we are disrupting and dealing with serious organised crime syndicates involved in illicit tobacco.

    See also:

    Return to:


    The tobacco tax gap estimate is derived using a model-based bottom-up methodology drawing on supply-side channel analysis. This approach is considered the most suitable given the body of cross-agency seizure data available.

    Data has been sourced from:

    • Home Affairs – international sea and air cargo, and international post supply channels
    • ATO – domestic chop-chop cultivation
    • ATO and Home Affairs – customs warehouses (reflecting the involvement of both agencies in administering this part of the system).

    Figure 2: Administrative responsibility and supply channels for illicit tobacco

    Figure 2 shows the administrative responsibilities and supply channels for illicit tobacco: ATO administers domestic chop chop and warehouse leakage, and the Department of Home Affairs (Australian Border Force) manages warehouse leakage, international postage, international passengers, and sea and air cargo.

    We compile these estimates of tobacco lost through each channel to calculate the total amount of illicit tobacco entering home consumption without duty paid using the following steps:

    Step 1: Estimate illicit tobacco arriving through importation

    The ABF provided intelligence for the 2015-16 year on the interdiction of tobacco that was not part of a targeted interception. This was expanded upon to create a total smuggled volume. This excluded high risk cargo that was targeted, examined and interdicted.

    In subsequent years the ABF have supplied only a total tonnage of smuggled tobacco interdicted. Working back from the baseline year we established the percentage of tobacco that was detected. We considered that improvements in targeting, particularly since the taskforce was established, have resulted in a higher percentage of tobacco being intercepted at the border. This allows us to calculate the figure for total smuggled tobacco and the quantity that is not intercepted.

    Step 2: Estimate the size of domestic chop-chop cultivation

    There are currently no licences issued for the cultivation of tobacco in Australia for either commercial or personal use. All tobacco grown in Australia for consumption is illicit.

    We are responsible for managing risks related to the domestic cultivation of tobacco without the necessary licence. We conduct crop seizures in partnership with other agencies such as the ABF and state police.

    We have developed an estimate of the value of this channel. We have analysed the value of seizures, risk, and intelligence referrals and created an uplift factor. This covers domestically cultivated tobacco that has not been detected or reported to authorities. This uplift was developed through referencing under-reporting of crime statistics from the Australian Institute of CriminologyExternal Link.

    Step 3: Analyse the licensed warehouse system

    Before July 2019 the majority of tobacco duty relating to tobacco imports was deferred until it exited a licensed warehouse. Goods that are entered ‘underbond’ are held in the warehouse system and the Tobacco duty is payable when the tobacco leaves the warehouse.

    Leakages could occur where tobacco that had entered the warehouse system exited without tobacco duty being paid. This is distinct from tobacco that is smuggled into the country. It could occur because of theft, goods for export being diverted, or errors in the importation stage where the incorrect weights are recorded.

    The point of liability for tobacco duty is when the tobacco leaves from the warehouse system, not the point of importation. For this reason, it is treated separately in this analysis.

    Historically we performed an inventory reconciliation to gauge the degree to which the system is prone to leakage of tobacco without duty paid. For the present year the final reconciliation at closure demonstrated that no leakage had occurred and for future years this element of the measure will remain zero due to changes in the law.

    Step 4: Compare total illicit amounts to legal clearances

    Combining the estimates from step 1 to step 3 arrives at the total of illicit tobacco from all the supply channels in Australia. Legal clearances of tobacco represented $12.9 billion in 2018–19. Adding the illicit amount to the legal clearances gives the amount theoretically subject to Tobacco duty in Australia.

    A portion of this would not be realistically recoverable, even if the illicit market was eliminated. This is because smokers of illicit tobacco would be likely to reduce their smoking rates if they had to smoke more expensive legal tobacco.

    Step 5: Deduct compliance and seizures to determine net gap

    This step involves deducting the total of ATO and Home Affairs compliance activities and seizures of illicit tobacco to determine the net gap. These activities include seizures across the sea and air cargo channels, international post, and domestic crop destructions.

    Summary of the estimation process

    Table 2 provides a summary of each step of the estimation process and the results for each year by tons and dollar value, as well as the gross and net gap percentages.

    The net and gross gap in percentage terms differ slightly between tonnage and dollar calculations for the 2015–16 estimate. This is due to a component of the imports conversion from tonnes to dollars being completed by Home Affairs, using a slightly different conversion rate, in their original analysis.

    Table 2: Applying the methodology for tobacco duty tax gap








    Estimate of illicit tobacco importations (tons)






    Estimate of illicit tobacco importations ($m)






    Estimate of illicit domestic chop-chop cultivation (tons)






    Estimate of illicit domestic chop-chop cultivation ($m)






    Analysis of licensed warehouse leakages (tons)






    Analysis of licensed warehouse leakages ($m)






    Gross gap (total Step 1–3) (tons)






    Gross gap (total Step 1–3) ($m)






    Legal clearances of tobacco (tons)






    Legal clearances of tobacco ($m)






    Total theoretical clearances of tobacco (tons)






    Total theoretical clearances of tobacco ($m)






    Seizures and compliance outcomes (tons)






    Seizures and compliance outcomes ($m)






    Net gap (Gross gap less seizures and compliance) (tons)






    Net gap (Gross gap less seizures and compliance) ($m)






    Gross gap (%)






    Net gap (%)






    For each of the three core components of the model, the following limitations apply:

    • Sea, air and international post statistical model – the methodology assumes that the sampling data set available for analysis is a truly random sample. Where the sampling method has changed from the original design, the methodology analyses the relationship differences between the historic and current intervention activities.
    • Domestic chop-chop analysis – the revenue forgone figure is approximate given the high-level nature of some of the referrals. Judgment calls are made regarding the likely yield for given acreages under cultivation. This includes crop spacing, the quality of crop management in regard to fertiliser and pesticide application, and the quality of seed.
    • Warehouse analysis – warehouse analysis is contingent on the quality of data entry by each warehouse licensee or customs broker. Keying or inventory errors may affect the final result. This reconciliation may not detect under-reporting of physical quantities of tobacco into the data system.
    • The legal tobacco market suppliers – the revenue integrity of large tobacco companies is monitored through transaction assurance warehouse checks, our client relationship management framework, and continuing intelligence and monitoring activities. An assumption has been made that there is minimal gap attributable to these clients.
    • Tobacco excise duty realistically recoverable – we recognise that smokers of illicit tobacco may reduce their smoking rates if they have to pay the higher legal price that includes tobacco duty. This would impact on the amount of tobacco duty realistically recoverable if the illicit market was eliminated.
    • Accounting for the shadow economy – the tobacco duty gap arises as a result of illegal activity and, therefore, the entire gap falls into the shadow economy.

    See also:

    Updates and revisions to previous estimates

    The 2020 revision has used the same channel-based approach to estimating the gap as we have done in previous years. The results for 2015–16 are similar in both releases, with slight revisions resulting from updated data.

    Figure 3 displays the gross gap and net gap from our current model compared to the previous estimate.

    Figure 3: Current and previous tobacco duty tax gap estimates, 2015–16 to 2018–19

    Figure 3 shows the net gap estimates from previously published years with a recent trend downwards.

    Return to:

      Last modified: 19 Oct 2020QC 55324