Illegal vape dealers are allegedly intimidating small shop owners into selling their businesses to them, threatening violence if they don’t comply.
The tactic, believed to be used by groups with ties to organized crime, offers them a legitimate store to sell their nicotine-filled vapes, which are often imported illegally from China.
A cigarette shop owner even told Daily Mail Australia that he had his car tires lowered and wheel nuts removed after challenging one of the alleged gangs.
The shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety, said the situation was “completely out of control.”
“I took my car in for service earlier this year and my mechanic said, ‘Someone must really hate you, your car is five nuts missing,'” he said.
‘I have a late model BMW that is serviced regularly as I drive a lot of miles. There’s no way in the world those wheel nuts came loose on their own.
The shop owner (pictured), who asked to remain anonymous, alleges that gangs in the illicit vape trade removed the lug nuts from her car after she resisted their demand to sell them her shop .
The woman, who owns ten tobacconists in Queensland and employs around 50 people, said the number of illegal vape shops operating in the area had increased fivefold.
‘In January, this guy walked into one of our stores and stood up to the girl behind the counter, telling her to go and tell her boss, me, if I didn’t sell the store to him, I’d be kicked out of town. ‘ she said.
‘He said he had started in other cities and had driven other stores out of business. He said they don’t survive and ends up buying the store anyway.
The shop owner, in her 60s, said she had contacted the police but was told there was nothing they could do.
“I asked a detective superintendent how I can protect myself and he said ‘we can’t do anything until you get hurt,'” he said.
“Health inspectors don’t even go into those stores, they’re afraid of them.”
An estimated 90 million vaporizers have been imported into Australia in the last year alone, with the majority coming from China.
She added: “I heard from another guy who complained (about the bullying) who was called and told ‘if you don’t shut your mouth, I have a bullet for you’.”
Currently, the only way to buy vapes legally is through a prescription from your doctor.
Yet convenience stores across the country are making a fortune selling nicotine-filled but unlabeled unregulated vapes containing the highly addictive liquid.
Importers often do not disclose their nicotine content to get past inspectors, with an estimated 90 million vapes imported into Australia illegally last year.
These are often bought by children, with schools and parents calling for stricter regulation to combat the rise in vaping.
The shop owner (pictured right) said she asked the police for help, but was told “we can’t do anything until you get hurt.”
Last month, a Queensland shop owner was driving her ailing husband to a hospital appointment when she noticed her tire pressure warning light was on.
“Six weeks before that, they put new tires on my car,” he said.
“We called the gas station and they were all semi-inflated.”
The next day, his tires were lowered again, an act of intimidation that he firmly blames on the gangs.
Her adult son was also recently followed and surveilled by a group of angry-looking men after he helped out at one of their stores.
“Now I am very aware of my surroundings all the time,” he added.
These guys just want to intimidate people and think they are above the law.
‘A store will be raided and within five hours they will be trading again. They’re making millions of dollars, it’s all about money. It’s unbelievable that this is happening in Australia.
The woman wrote to Health Minister Mark Butler but has yet to receive a reply.
It hasn’t even recognized my email. And they created this black market. It was not the Queensland government, although they have helped it, it was the federal government that created it by being greedy,” he said.
He even considered buying body cameras for his staff, but decided against it because he doesn’t want to ‘put the fear of God’ on them.
“We just have to make sure these guys are closed,” he said.
Theo Foukkare, chief executive of the Australian Convenience Store Association, whose members sell cigarettes in stores, said he had heard of some retailers receiving threats and intimidation.
“We’ve heard of people coming in and saying ‘if you don’t stock our products, I’m going to burn your store down,'” he said.
Other retailers have been told “if you don’t sell me your business, I’ll open next door and put you out of business.” There are these kinds of tactics going on that generally law abiding retailers want nothing to do with and in many cases cave in out of fear.
He added: “Gangs just want a legitimate business presenting itself as a retail store selling illegal goods to unsuspecting Australians.”
Vaping has been labeled a “public health threat” by Health Minister Mark Butler
The Australian Convenience Store Association counts British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Imperial Brands among its manufacturer members.
The association, which also represents gas station retailers, advocates for the legalization and regulation of vaping.
“The fines associated with the import and sale of nicotine vapes are currently extremely low,” said Mr Foukkare.
“We now have scenarios where organized criminals dealing in illicit products have turned their attention to nicotine vaping products because they can make more money than illicit drugs and don’t really feel the wrath of the law.”
Foukkare estimates that 90 million vaporizers were illegally imported in the last year alone, the vast majority coming from China.
“When you can get them at $5 each, you can sell them anywhere between $35 and $50 retail so you can start to figure out where the margin is and why the appeal is there,” he said.
Mr. Foukkare criticized the current situation where many importers of illegal vapes were circumventing it by not disclosing their nicotine content.
“This then goes to a wholesaler who sells it to anyone who buys it,” he said.
“The other challenge we have is that anyone who buys it usually has no morals or ethics, so they sell it to kids as well.
“The products they are selling are 100% unregulated (no electrical safety standards, no max nicotine content, no ingredient disclosure) and are typically cash only, thus avoiding GST.
“Legitimate retailers are getting screwed every day.”
Foukkare criticized the authorities’ response.
‘The police don’t do anything, that’s part of the problem. They just say it’s a federal government problem and the federal government says it’s a state problem because it’s managed by state tobacco law, so you can quickly see why we have such a *** program,” he said.
It comes as the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is said to be considering cracking down on the vaping industry.
Health Minister Mark Butler has vowed to “eradicate the threat to public health” by introducing a series of measures, including a ban on vape flavors, the placement of warning labels on individual product packaging and the introduction of permits for importers who enter the country vape.
However, vaping advocates are strongly opposed to further restrictions.
The Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association argues that e-cigarettes remain an important tool that can help smokers quit.
Worrying facts about vaping
– Many vaporizers contain nicotine, which makes them addictive.
– Vaporizers can contain the same harmful chemicals found in cleaning products, nail polish removers, herbicides and insect repellents.
– Vapes can leave young people at increased risk of depression and anxiety.
– The nicotine in a vaporizer can be equivalent to 50 cigarettes – depending on the size of the vaporizer and the nicotine concentration, it can be much higher
– Young people who vape are 3 times more likely to start smoking cigarettes
– Vape spray is not water vapor.
– Vaping has been linked to lung disease.
– Vaporizers can cause long-lasting harmful effects on brain and physical development
Source: New South Wales Government