Heavily armed criminal gangs are plundering the lucrative tobacco industry, carrying out at least four hijackings a day on vehicles transporting cigarettes.

“You ‘hit’ a vehicle transporting cigarettes and you strike gold,” said Francois van der Merwe, CEO of the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa.

He was commenting after Tabby Tsengiwe, the spokesman for British American Tobacco – one of the biggest distributors of cigarettes in South Africa – said yesterday that 1412 of its transport vehicles were hijacked annually.

This equates to about four attacks a day. In January, armed robbers attacked a BAT vehicle in Brackenhurst, south of Johannesburg. On the same day, a truck delivering cigarettes was robbed by seven men armed with R5 assault rifles in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg.

In April, police arrested five men in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape, after they robbed a truck of cigarettes worth R180,000.

And according to a police report to the Gauteng portfolio committee on community safety in November last year, 20.5% of hijackings in the province involved BAT vehicles transporting cigarettes.

Criminologists, researchers and the cigarette industry say sophisticated and organised syndicates are reportedly moving away from cash-in-transit vehicles, ATMs and banks to softer targets such as un-armoured and unescorted vehicles distributing cigarettes across South Africa.

With the cigarette war escalating, criminologists are urging the government to do more to combat the crime.

Police failed to respond to questions e-mailed to them on Monday.

BAT said vehicle hijackings were of significant concern: “More than R1-billion has been invested in trade marketing and distribution operations. The crime threatens the security of our employees.”

The company said hijackers prized products that could be rapidly dispersed, which made trucks transporting fast-moving consumer goods vulnerable.

The company said it was concerned about the low conviction rates of such criminals, and rapid convictions with stiff penalties were needed

Van der Merwe said BAT was hardest hit by crime because of its huge distribution network system.

“The traditional way of delivery is through wholesalers.”

Because vehicles carry as many as 50 “master cases”, which contain about 10,000 cigarettes, a single attack could result in a syndicate “striking gold”.

With a single cigarette costing R3 on the street, they could make R30,000 from one hit.

“Those behind these attacks, which are carefully planned and not isolated incidents, are well-organised syndicates with established distribution networks.

“It is a serious problem requiring serious political will to address,” said Van der Merwe.

Khalil Goga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said the gangs targeting cigarette vehicles consisted of criminals with skills ranging from cash-in-transit and bank robberies to hijackings.

“Violent robbers are turning to these crimes because they are easy. It’s easy to move commodities … sold in the informal economy.”

The tobacco institute claims that at least 6billion cigarettes consumed annually are either illegal (stolen and counterfeit) or illicit (undeclared or incorrectly packaged by the manufacturer to avoid paying tax).

Van der Merwe said a cigarette was declared illicit for a number of reasons, including if the packaging did not comply with government regulations. “A cigarette box must have health warnings, tar and nicotine readings and customs and excise stamps.”

Of the 6 billion illicit cigarettes sold annually, 3 billion were manufactured in the country.

“This is done mainly through excise manipulation, where not all produce is declared to SARS. Since 2010 South Africa has lost more than R22-billon because of illicit cigarettes,” he said.

Charles Goredema, a research consultant on economic crime, said cigarettes stolen in hijackings were sold through the same mechanisms as illicit cigarettes.

“The impact, regardless of whether they are illegal, illicit or counterfeit, is huge. These syndicates, which make hundreds of millions of rands annually, flood the market, undercutting regulated businesses and causing job losses.”

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