Public Health told not to enforce tobacco rules on reserves

Tobacco control officers in Grey-Bruce are being instructed not to enforce the province’s Smoke-Free Ontario Act in local First Nations communities, including the Saugeen and Chippewas of Nawash reserves, says the head of enforcement at the area’s public health unit.

Linda Davies, tobacco control program manager, says provincial Ministry of Health Promotion staff has told the Grey Bruce Health Unit that aboriginal governments have the right to make and enforce their own smoking-related bylaws.

“We’re not tasked with enforcing on reserves right now unless we have a prior agreement with the local government,” she said.

Tobacco control officers with the province’s public health units enforce Smoke-Free Ontario laws, which include a ban on smoking in workplaces and enclosed public spaces, advertising or displaying tobacco products at stores and selling cigarettes to people under 19 years of age.

Several smoke shops on Highway 21 in Saugeen First Nation appear to be in direct contravention of the Act, due to advertisements promoting “Cheap Smokes.”

Repeated attempts to reach local First Nations leaders have been unsuccessful.

The National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, which was to hold a media event this morning in Chatsworth as part of a cross-province tour to raise awareness of the dangers of contraband cigarettes, issued a call this summer for the provincial government to enforce tobacco control laws “equally” across Ontario.

The group says so-called “smoke shacks” on First Nations reserves are a “major contributor to serious problems like youth smoking,” as vendors “appear to do virtually no age testing,” as required by the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, to keep tobacco away from people under age 19.

Also, the coalition says tax-free cigarettes “increasingly are being improperly sold” from smoke shacks to non-natives “and taken off reserve (and) sold as contraband.” One out of every three cigarettes smoked in Ontario is now believed to be contraband.

“These cigarettes shouldn’t be making their way off reserves as they are seriously contributing to youth smoking and costing millions in lost government tax revenue,” coalition spokesman Gary Grant said in a statement.

The coalition says “there appears to be no serious attempts by the province of Ontario to clamp down on smokers evading taxation by purchasing cigarettes on reserve and moving them off.”

In a recent report, a government-appointed tobacco strategy advisory group, which included local medical officer of health Dr. Hazel Lynn, recommended the province engage in a dialogue with First Nations leaders and communities to achieve a “mutually satisfactory approach” to stop the sale of tax-exempt tobacco to ineligible people.

An RCMP spokesman told The Sun Times last week that officers have the power to charge people for possessing contraband cigarettes — not cigarettes legal for sale to natives — at First Nations “smoke shacks,” but are currently focusing efforts on targeting cross-border smugglers.

Scott Blodgett, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Revenue, said ministry inspectors target about 450 retailers each month to ensure compliance with the provincial Tobacco Tax Act. Convictions have risen by 44% in fiscal 2009-10 from the previous year, he said.

First Nations people, registered under the Indian Act, are exempt from the Tobacco Tax Act, so long as sales and purchases, for their exclusive use, of unmarked, untaxed tobacco products are made on a reserve.

Blodgett refused to say whether Ministry of Revenue inspectors are targeting smoke shack operators who sell untaxed cigarettes to ineligible people.

“Smoke shops are one aspect of a complicated problem that requires a multi-ministry and multi-jurisdictional response,” he said.

“We will continue to work with our federal and provincial counterparts and stakeholders to find solutions to the complicated issues surrounding tobacco.

“We must note that due to confidentiality provisions of the Tobacco Tax Act and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Ministry is not able to discuss any specific corporation or the individual’s situation.”


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