Watch the drone footage of a $13.3m tobacco bust in Katherine

A big crop of illicit tobacco was being grown near Katherine, the first time this criminal activity has ever been detected in the NT. Pictures: ATO.
A big crop of illicit tobacco was being grown near Katherine, the first time this criminal activity has ever been detected in the NT. Pictures: ATO.

There has been a history-making bust on an illegal tobacco crop in Katherine.

Seven hectares of the crop has been seized and destroyed by federal authorities.

It is the first illicit operation of its type ever uncovered in the Katherine region, and the Northern Territory.

The first warrant executed by the newly established Illicit Tobacco Taskforce uncovered more than seven hectares of illegal tobacco crops and six tonnes of tobacco leaf, with an estimated excise value of $13.3 million, growing near Katherine.

The location of the crop has not been revealed.

The crops, discovered during joint warrant activity between the Australian Taxation Office and Australian Border Force, with support from Northern Territory Police, is the first ever tobacco crop seizure in the Northern Territory.

ATO Deputy Commissioner Will Day said the seizure was a major breakthrough in a new region.

"This seizure is well outside the traditional tobacco growing season, in an area thousands of kilometres from previously established tobacco growing areas.

"There is nowhere to hide from the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce. We will find, seize and destroy illegally grown tobacco in Australia, wherever it is. This trade supports organised crime and the loss of excise harms the community," Mr Day said.

ABF Enforcement Command Assistant Commissioner, Sharon Huey, said the operation was a significant start to the ITTF and should send a message to those involved in this criminal activity.

"Bringing together the significant resources of the ABF and ATO, along with our ACIC and AUSTRAC colleagues means we can tackle this black market trade on multiple fronts," Assistant Commissioner Huey said.

"Whether it is shipping containers filled with loose leaf tobacco, mail items concealing cigarettes or locally grown tobacco crops, we are preventing significant amounts of illicit tobacco from entering the Australian market."

The operation found three separate crops of mature tobacco plants, some as high as two metres.

Several shipping containers were found at the property, with one containing drying tobacco leaf, and there was an extensive irrigation system in operation, which has been removed from the site.

Northern Territory Police were vital to the operation in helping identify the location of the property and supporting the raids, and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and AUSTRAC provided key intelligence support.

Recent estimates from the ATO and the Department of Home Affairs reveal that almost $600 million in tobacco duty was foregone in 2015-16 financial year as a result of the trade in illicit tobacco.

Since July 2016, the ATO has undertaken 33 seizures totalling 221 tonnes of illicit tobacco with estimated tobacco duty forgone of $192 million.

In the last financial year the ABF made more than 110,000 detections of illicit tobacco at the border including almost 240 million cigarettes and 217 million tonnes of tobacco, worth more than $356 million in evaded duty.

The Katherine Times has sought information on the charges and people arrested as a result of this operation.