Justice Frank Seepersad
AN international tobacco distributor operating under the Free Zone Act for almost two decades has received the High Court’s permission to challenge a Ministry of Health decision to declare its operation in breach of the Tobacco Control Act.
Justice Frank Seepersad granted leave to the North American Trading Company (NATC) after the ministry agreed to let the company operate until the matter is determined.
An initial application for an injunction was withdrawn because of the ministry’s position.
In its application, the company said on November 10, 2022, a customs officer called to say an inspection of its records was going to take place.
Two bus loads of police, with guns drawn, were at NATC’s premises at the Free Zone Complex in D’Abadie. Also accompanying the customs officer and the police was a representative from the tobacco control unit (TCU) of the ministry.
The lawsuit said although there was no warrant, the company’s representative allowed the officers to enter its warehouse and co-operated fully with the inspection. It also said the incident gave a false impression the company was operating illegally in the free zone.
Nothing illegal was found during the search, but company officials received calls from business associates, customers and partners asking about a “raid” on the warehouse and the potential impact it could have on their business relationship.
On February 9, 2023, the company received notice from the ministry’s TCU that it was in breach of the Tobacco Control Act and was required to cease operations immediately until the appropriate licences were obtained, since it did not have exemptions to engage in wholesale tobacco business in the free zone.
The company maintains the TCU had no jurisdiction within the free zone.
In its lawsuit, it said it communicated to the ministry it was facing extreme prejudice and economic loss, to the tune of US$979,714, up to now, as it had to stop approved exports and, instead, export from inter-continental business-park free zones.
Also cited were additional losses incurred by the delay in loading ships which arrived in Trinidad and Tobago and one of its major suppliers asking for a hold on clearing seven containers shipped to NATC, out of concerns it would be barred from re-exporting the goods.
The lawsuit maintains that the NATC does not engage in real sale or distribute tobacco products in the local market, and the free zone was a jurisdiction separate and apart from the customs territory of TT, with its own unique set of laws and regulations on the movement of goods.
“Any approved enterprise such as the applicant/intended claimant can operate within the free zone without the need for a licence.”
The matter is expected to come up for hearing again on April 24.
Representing the company are attorneys John Heath, Sheldon Mycoo, instructed by Lionel Luckhoo.