* Illegal trade spiked under former president Zuma
* Investigation into illicit trade dropped by tax agency
* Tax boss suspended amid ongoing graft inquiry
By Nomvelo Chalumbira
JOHANNESBURG, July 5 (Reuters) - South Africa has become one of the biggest markets for illegal cigarette sales and is losing out on 7 billion rand ($514 million) a year in potential tax revenue, a report funded by a tobacco industry group said on Thursday.
The study carried out by Ipsos found illegal cigarette trade spiked between 2014 and 2017 after a probe into the underground industry was dropped by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) under suspended commissioner Tom Moyane.
Moyane, an ally of former President Jacob Zuma, is the main focus of an ongoing SARS commission of inquiry over allegations of widespread corruption at the tax agency under his watch. He denies any wrongdoing.
Former head of enforcement at SARS, Gene Ravele, told the inquiry last week the decision to drop the investigation into illegal tobacco trade was intended to let it continue.
"After I left (in 2015), there was no inspections at cigarette factories. It was planned," said Ravele.
A packet of cigarettes should incur a minimum tax of 17.85 rand ($1.31), yet packs are sold on the black market for as little as 5 rand as manufacturers dodge official sales channels to avoid paying tax, the Ipsos study found.
Three-quarters of all South Africa's informal vendors - totaling 100,000 - sell illegal cigarettes in an industry that was worth 15 billion rand ($1.10 billion) over the last three years, the report said.
"Independent superettes‚ corner cafes and general dealers are the key channels for ultra-cheap brands‚ with hawkers providing a key entry point‚ mainly through the loose cigarette sales," Ipsos head of measurement Zibusiso Ngulube said.
"These manufacturers are perfectly primed to continue to grow at a fast rate."
The study was funded by The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa, which includes arms of global manufacturers like Philip Morris International, Alliance One and British American Tobacco.
$1 = 13.5798 rand Reporting by Nomvelo Chalumbira; Editing by Joe Brock and Mark Potter