CHILDREN are being used as mules by tobacco smuggling gangs to go door-to-door delivering packets of cheap cigarettes in housing estates.
Retailers Against Smuggling said crime bosses were pulling up in vans and using youngsters to distribute the contraband to dodge the gardai.
The lobby group told TDs and senators that leaflets were also being dropped into homes with a mobile number to order deliveries of knock-down cigs.
Spokesman Benny Gilsenan said: "The vans are being used by the criminals, who would park it within a mile of the particular area that he's going to offload the cigarettes in.
"He's using the children to take 200 or 400 cigarettes because of the fact it's a small quantity of cigarettes they're carrying, their chances of being caught is a lot slimmer than carrying a bag with 2,000 cigarettes."
Mr Gilsenan, who owns a corner shop in central Dublin, told the Oireachtas Justice Committee the problem was rampant in the Balbriggan area of Dublin.
"It's also the same situation going door-to-door," he said.
"A van would park in a specific area and he would use the youngsters to knock on the door."
The Irish Cancer Society, Irish Heart Foundation and Ash Ireland also attended the committee meeting and jointly called for the Government to introduce a national anti-smuggling strategy.
It is believed around a quarter of the cigarettes sold in Ireland are brought in illegally - costing the exchequer around €400m a year.
The charities called for tougher penalties for cigarette companies whose products were involved in smuggling as well as on-the-spot fines for smugglers.
The Finance Bill, published by the Government earlier this month, allows for tougher punishments for those caught bringing contraband into the country.
The Irish Heart Foundation said smuggling had nothing to do with high taxes on tobacco and that cigarette companies were actually profiting from the illegal activity.
Chris Macey, head of advocacy, said the gardai were doing their best but penalties were weak and resources to tackle the problem limited.
"The efforts of customs and gardai are being undermined by sentences handed down in the court," he said.