Police intelligence documents have revealed aggravated robberies of shops have more than doubled in the past two years, with cigarettes being targeted by thieves almost 500 times in a little over a year - quadrupling previous estimates.
Offenders wielding guns, knives and hammers in search of "gold bars" of tobacco have left shopkeepers "constantly living in fear" and resorting to fighting back with their own weapons.
A previously unreleased Police intelligence report from September last year found there were at least 490 burglaries and robberies in which cigarettes were targeted in a 13 month period - more than one a day, and more than four times the estimate the Herald made after analysing media reports of burglaries.
Police had declined to provide the number of tobacco robberies to the Herald in past Official Information Act requests this year, stating the information didn't exist. Subsequent OIA requests found Police had compiled numbers and analysed thefts as early as September last year.
A separate document covering an urgent briefing in May this year of the Minister of Police Paula Bennett, contained admissions the "perceived ease" of committing aggravated robbery "with a low risk of apprehension" was motivating offenders.
"Aggravated robberies of commercial premises are trending upwards," the report said. "Eighty-seven offences have occurred [in the past 47 days] with 21 premises robbed in the past week."
The document also admitted the rising cost of tobacco was likely to contribute to the on-going targeting of tobacco and to aggravated robberies of dairies.
"It is likely the yearly increases in tobacco tax will continue to cause tobacco products to be targeted and on-sold."
One in three aggravated robberies involves a gun, and one in four a knife or a blunt instrument, such as a hammer.
The data showed young offenders were the age group most likely to be charged. In April and May this year, 76 people were charged with aggravated robbery of a commercial premises. Of these, 41 of them - 54 per cent - were aged 17 and under. Ten were 13 or 14 years old.
"Young gangs have been identified in a large proportion of aggravated robberies and are likely to be significantly more involved in such robberies than analysis shows.
"These items return high profits for offenders, with a $20 pack of cigarettes gaining the offender $10 when on-sold which is high in comparison to the returns for other stolen goods, likely increasing their appeal."
In response to the report, Superintendent Eric Tibbott, national prevention manager, said police were very concerned about recent aggravated robberies across the country.
"Aggravated robbery is a serious crime and if prosecuted, the offender can face serious jail time."
He said police had visited business owners to offer crime prevention advice and a pilot programme would be rolled out in the coming months involving Maori and Ethnic Wardens patrolling areas of South Auckland identified as at risk of serious crime.
"Items such as cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol have long been a targeted commodity for thieves. Cigarettes and tobacco in particular are easy to transport and sell on.
"Police takes this issue very seriously and is taking every opportunity to prevent harm. This includes working with partners to keep our communities safe."
Act Party leader David Seymour has previously said it was "extraordinary" Police were not recording the number of tobacco-related robberies after his own Official Information Act request was declined for a lack of information.
In saying that, he said the increase in thefts was not of Police's making, but was more evidence the legislated annual tobacco tax hikes was a "failed policy".
"If they'd reduced smoking substantially, you might say, 'Okay, its been pretty tough but lots of people are stopping smoking'.
"The last analysis I saw was that they'd doubled the price of cigarettes through taxes and the number of people smoking went from 16 per cent to 15 per cent," he said.
"It's a problem of the tobacco tax that basically turns bricks of tobacco into gold bars. It's led to enormous violence, it's impoverished some of the poorest communities in New Zealand, and I think it's another sign the Government has to rethink its tobacco tax policy.
"The question is: is the Government now addicted to the revenue that's taken from the poorest households in New Zealand?" Seymour said.
It was expected the Government would receive around $2 billion in tobacco excise tax revenue this year - more than 2.5 per cent of its entire tax take.
New Zealand Association of Dairies, Groceries and Small Businesses president Naginbhai Neil Patel said the Government was not reinvesting its fair share of the money into protecting dairy owners.
"The Government's pocketing billions of dollars, and they don't spend half of that on protecting the people who collect that tax for them," he said.
A $1.8 million package announced by the Government in June would help up to 600 eligible dairies to meet half the cost of various security measures, including fog cannons and DNA spray. This was 0.1 per cent of this year's annual excise tax take from tobacco.
"Our members are honest, humble, hard workers, working from 6 or 7 o'clock, to 10 o'clock or midnight, and the Government's not protecting them."
He said his members have said most people breaking in to stores were under 18 years old and demanded cigarettes and cash.
"It's a terrible situation.
"It's aided and abetted by the parents. They're not ignorant, they're not childish. They're professionals."
Superintendent Tibbott said police were confident the $1.8m package of security measures would help deter crime from vulnerable business owners.
"We want business owners to feel safe and be safe, and believe this is helping us to achieve that aim."