Russia gangs 'help cigarette scams'
Ireland's organised crime gangs have joined forces with Russian criminals to flood the country with counterfeit cigarettes, it has been claimed.
Illegal cigarettes smuggled from China, the Middle East and countries bordering the EU account for about a fifth of tobacco smoked in the country.
The black market industry is costing the economy 250 million euro in lost revenue each year, as well as job losses in the retail sector.
The head of an EU task force on tobacco smuggling revealed it was a significant problem in Ireland, with criminals importing small amounts frequently.
But Austin Rowan, of the European Commission's Anti-Fraud Office, said there was no proof Ireland was a gateway for smuggling cigarettes from China to mainland Europe. He revealed several eastern European led gangs, particularly from Russia, are working in co-operation with gangs in Ireland.
"Everybody is making money and everybody is great pals. That's the whole name of the game," he said. "Any criminal gang in Ireland can make contacts very easy with the eastern European gangs."
Ireland's growing problem with cigarette smuggling was highlighted by leading European policing figures at the annual Retailers Against Smuggling conference in Dublin. A total of 54 million cigarettes, with a retail value of approximately 22.5 million euro (£20 million), have also been seized in the Republic so far this year.
The Revenue Commissioners - who led the detention of seven containers of cigarettes, including two in Northern Ireland and one in Antwerp, Belgium this year - plan to mount a series of 'blitz' operations across the country to target smugglers.
Tom Talbot, principal officer, said up to 40 million cigarettes a year are seized from air passengers travelling from eastern Europe and the Canary Islands, where people can "buy low and sell high".
"Every form of smuggling is being used," he said. "It ranges from individuals in the airports all the way up to serious organised crime, and everything in between."