Convenience stores want governments to butt out contraband cigarettes

Contraband cigarettes are so easy to find in Eastern Canada that illegal tobacco now corners about half the market in Ontario, according to the Canadian Convenience Stores Association.

It also comprises about 40 per cent of Quebec sales and 30 to 35 per cent of those in the Maritimes, and the illegal activity is now moving into Alberta — an upward trend of “constant growth” in the $2.5-billion underground industry over the past few years, said the association’s senior vice-president Michel Gadbois.

“It’s a total injustice to legal retailers,” said Gadbois.

Shown is an example of contraband cigarettes displayed at a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009, in Windsor, Ont. by the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco.

Shown is an example of contraband cigarettes displayed at a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009, in Windsor, Ont. by the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco.

The association, which represents some 23,000 stores across the country, also said on Monday that underage smokers have become prime targets for illicit sales.

“Kids can buy a pack of contraband cigarettes for less than the price of a pack of gum,” said Chris Wilcox, the vice-president of Quickie Convenience Stores.

Wilcox said that while a carton of 200 cigarettes goes for about $82 in Ontario — and is set to rise to $88 after the HST is implemented in July — contraband cartons cost only about $10 to $15.

“The government strategy of pricing tobacco out of reach is completely undercut by this cheap smuggled tobacco flooding into our streets and our schoolyards. And these smuggling networks, once they’ve been established, are used to move other illegal products like drugs and guns,” said Wilcox.

“So by not controlling the trade in contraband tobacco, we’re allowing all the manner of criminal activity to go unpunished in this country.”

To track the trend, the association commissioned a study of discarded cigarette butts found in Ottawa in April. The study said that of six high schools in the area, contraband cigarettes made up between 13 per cent and 39 per cent of all discarded butts. The highest figure was from Rideau High School in east-end Ottawa.

It also tested butts at government buildings and public places in the city, with the Finance Ministry clocking in at 32 per cent contraband, and the Supreme Court of Canada at 22 per cent.

Gadbois and Wilcox were in Ottawa on Monday to ask the federal government to stop “trivializing” the issue of contraband tobacco in Canada, and agree to work with provinces and territories across Canada and commit to reducing contraband cigarettes to 10 per cent of all tobacco sold.

Gadbois said a majority of contraband tobacco is smuggled into the country from the United States into Akwesasne Mohawk Territory near Cornwall, Ont., by criminal gangs who use the money and the means for other criminal enterprises, such as gun and drug smuggling.

In a statement, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged the government “knows that illicit manufacturing and sale of illegal cigarettes has a significant impact on our economy as well as on public safety.”

He said a federal government initiative launched in 2008, the Task Force on Illicit Tobacco Products, is working “to examine measures to combat contraband tobacco.”

“We are continuing to advance efforts to address the issue of contraband tobacco on a national level in collaboration with provincial governments, First Nations communities and industry stakeholders. We have no evidence to confirm that the problem of contraband is getting worse, however,” said Toews.

He added that the federal government has established the First Nations Organized Crime Initiative in Ontario and Quebec to target organized crime networks that deal in contraband of all kinds.

He said the government will be announcing further initiatives “in the near future” to combat contraband tobacco.

Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, said that cheap cigarettes have “impeded the pace of progress” in reducing smoking rates in Canada. He said that in the first half of 2009, some 18 per cent of Canadians were smokers, and 14 per cent of teenagers aged 15 to 19 smoked — down one per cent from the previous year.

“Cigarette contraband is a very serious problem. Higher prices are the most important way to reduce smoking, especially among teenagers who have less income,” he said, adding that smoking contributes to 37,000 deaths each year in Canada.

“I think that if we were able to control contraband successfully, it would be very beneficial to our potential progress to reduce smoking, including among youth.”

source: vancouversun.com

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