New Zealand's biggest tobacco company is blaming the government's hefty tobacco excise for the rise in violent robberies on dairy and petrol stations workers and wants it to take urgent action, including introducing tougher minimum jail sentences.
The call comes after a spate of attacks on dairy workers who are now fearing for their lives as armed robbers enter their stores steal to cigarettes and cash from them.
In the past week, two Hamilton owners have been treated at hospital after being hit on the head as robbers attacked them in broad daylight.
Emm Jay Dairy owner Sandip Patel was left with a fractured skull after being slashed on his head and hands with a machete and Hillcrest Minimart owner Michael suffered an eye injury on Saturday morning after being hit with a hammer as three men stole from him.
The Ministry of Health would not comment on the impact of the tobacco excise on crime until it had received an independent report looking at how the rising cost impacted on reducing tobacco consumption.
Ministry of Health tobacco control programme senior adviser Brendon Baker said it would be "premature to comment" before receiving the report by the end of 2018 as it was likely to include any unintended consequences such as a rise in crime, illicit trade and the financial impact on smokers and their families.
British American Tobacco New Zealand general manager Ed Mirana said the Government needed to act now as dairy owners, retailers, families and their staff should not be going to work fearing for their lives.
With dairy owners claiming cigarettes made up about 60 per cent of their profit, Mirana said they should not be forced to stop selling them because of crime.
Instead he said the Government, which received about $2 billion a year in revenue from tobacco taxes in 2017, needed to stop the excise increases of 10 per cent a year and introduce minimum jail sentences for violent retail crime which would act as deterrents to people carrying out the crimes.
"The compounding effect of these disproportionate price increases has made tobacco incredibly lucrative for criminals, feeding the black market and ultimately fuelling retail crime."
Mirana also believed extra police patrolling, further awareness that retail crime and selling stolen goods will not be tolerated and providing more education to retailers about how they can keep safe in a robbery would help address the problem.
However BATNZ was not convinced vending machines were "the solution to the underlying crisis". The tobacco giant was testing some stand-alone vending solutions, but was concerned it could make criminals more violent if they could not access the tobacco they wanted and simply shift the problem to another store which did not have the machine.
A small group of representatives for the Waikato's dairy, liquor store and service stations met with Hamilton Labour MP Jamie Strange on Monday and decided they urgently needed the Government to use some of the money generated from the tobacco taxes to be spent on providing a vending machine for every store, additional community patrolling or security guards, or even to introduce a cashless currency.
Parkwood Supervalue director Manish Thakkar, who was at the meeting, said dairy owners needed action now and thought the suggested initiatives, which Strange had told them he would raise with the appropriate minister, would all help. He believed installing a vending machine behind the counter which only opened once payment was made would be a deterrent.
Police National Prevention Manager Superintendent Eric Tibbott said cigarettes had always been a target for thieves due to their size, making it easier to steal and store and the amount of money that could be made from on-selling them.
Police are working with the community to identify the end buyers of stolen cigarettes and are also in close contact with store owners and industry support groups to try stop the crimes happening, including running a workshop for store owners to educate them about preventing crime through store layout.
It had also identified 100 premises that are particularly vulnerable to aggravated robbery and theft and offered subsidised fog cannons at a cost of $250 to the store owner. Since January 3, 2018, 51 have been installed.
A spokesperson for revenue and small business minister Stuart Nash said one of the short-term initiatives rolled out was heavily subsidising fog cannons to give the shop owner time to escape and lessening the risk of wanton violence.
In the long-term, he also encouraged shop owners to work with community policing teams on further ways to make their premises safer and believed Labour's commitment to recruit an extra 1800 new police officers is to disrupt the methamphetamine trade would also see a reduction in these crimes as the proceeds from the sales were often used to fuel P addictions.
What can dairy owners do to protect themselves?
• Improving visibility into the store – so your neighbours can report anything suspicious
• Make items of high value harder to access, such as keeping cigarettes and alcohol behind the counter and away from lines of sight
• Installing low-cost deterrents such as CCTV and audible alarms
• Take advice from their local police, who can offer tailored advice to their specific circumstances
Source: NZ Police
By the numbers
Excise tax - 60 per cent
GST - 15 per cent
Manufacturing cost and supply, distribution - 16 per cent
Retail margins - 9 per cent