Why so many are going up in flames

By Eliza Mcphee For Daily Mail Australia

05:00 27 May 2024, updated 05:00 27 May 2024

A violent war has erupted between motorcycle gangs and Middle Eastern crime syndicates over the illegal trade of black market vapes – with dozens of tobacco shops going up in flames.

There’s been more than 40 arson attacks across Australia that are understood to be related to the sale of black market tobacco, with Victoria copping the worst of the violence.

Two men, one understood to have links to the Comanchero outlaw motorcycle gang, were even gunned down in separate incidents in Melbourne over what’s believed to be conflict over the vape trade. 

Four tobacco stores in Victoria were set alight between Christmas and January 12, with one store hit twice in two consecutive nights.

The situation has gotten so bad that Victoria Police has set up Taskforce Lunar to investigate, leading to the arrest of five members of the Finks Outlaw Motorcycle Gang in January.

A violent war has erupted between motorcycle gangs and Middle Eastern crime syndicates over the illegal trade of black market vapes – with dozens of tobacco shops going up in flames (pictured is burnt tobacco shop in Caulfield, Melbourne)
Last month two tobacco stores within just one kilometre of each other in Ballarat were vandalised
Robert Issa, who is understood to have links to the Comanchero outlaw motorcycle gang, was shot dead while sitting in a luxury Mercedes SUV, outside Melbourne’s Craigieburn Central shopping centre in October last year

‘Taskforce Lunar investigators believes the current situation is a result of criminal syndicates in conflict due to competition for profit derived from the illicit tobacco market,’ Victoria Police and the AFP said in a shared statement.

‘The current conflict includes both the physical placement of illicit tobacco into stores, as well as demands for stores to sell the syndicate’s illicit product and to pay a ‘tax’ per week to operate.

‘Police believe the syndicates are comprised of personnel from Middle Eastern Organised Crime groups and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, who are then engaging local networked youth, street gangs and other low-level criminal to carry out the offending.’

As part of the operation Victoria Police has distributed a letter to landlords to highlight current risks around businesses operating who are engaged in illicit activity.

This includes the risk to current insurance arrangements as well as the potential for nearby businesses and properties to be adversely impacted by the fires and other criminal activity.

Two letters are being distributed, one for properties where warrants have been executed and illicit products have been seized, while the second is more general.

Landlords of properties currently rented to businesses selling tobacco should expect to receive a letter in the next fortnight.’

Brian Marlow, the Director of Legalise Vaping Australia, said the violence over black market e-cigarettes was a ‘direct consequence’ of the Federal Government’s ban on disposable vapes.

Health Minister Mark Butler introduced a nationwide ban on the importation of disposable vapes on January 1. 

Access to e-cigarettes for therapeutic purposes requires a prescription from a medical or nurse practitioner. 

The shooting of Mr Issa was believed to be related to the underworld war for control of the illegal tobacco trade. Another man in the car was also injured and hospitalised

READ MORE: Single picture reveals extent of Australia’s vaping habit 

Mr Marlow pointed to New Zealand where vapes were once legal but heavily regulated.

Across the ditch, vape retailers had to be at least 300metres away from schools, while they can also only be generic flavours.

The maximum nicotine strength can also only be 20mg/mL, making them less addictive.

However, the New Zealand government at the end of last month announced they would be imposing a ban on vapes and e-cigarettes to minors, as well as raising financial penalties for those who sell them to children.

Under the new laws, retailers that sell vapes to those under 18 can be fined the equivalent of $91,000.

‘We have the most expensive cigarettes in the world, smokers are working class people who don’t have money on hand and if they can’t afford cigarettes they’ll turn to the black market,’ Mr Marlow told Daily Mail Australia.

‘The black market is huge in this country, 90 per cent of vapers buy from the black market which creates billions in revenue.’

Mr Marlow said turf wars were erupting between stores being set up in Victoria, as the state did not require retailers to hold a licence.

Pictured is the debris from a tobacco store that went up in flames in Caulfield South, in Melbourne on February 9
One store at the intersection of…

Read More: Why so many are going up in flames