Young smokers choosing contraband cigarettes

About 13 per cent of Canadian high-school students who are daily smokers regularly smoke illegal cigarettes

A significant portion of young smokers regularly choose contraband cigarettes, a serious public-health problem that undermines efforts to curb young smoking rates, according to a study published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Young people who smoke contraband cigarettes also smoke significantly more than their peers who smoke other brands, the study found.

About 13 per cent of Canadian high-school students who are daily smokers regularly smoke illegal cigarettes, according to the study. But those smokers consume 17.5 per cent of all cigarettes smoked by that age group, researchers found.

The problem is much more pronounced in Ontario and Quebec than elsewhere in the country, likely due to the fact that’s where the contraband market is biggest. Nearly 22 per cent of youth smokers in Ontario and more than 22 per cent of Quebec youth smokers say they regularly choose illegal cigarettes. They consume more than 25 per cent of all cigarettes smoked by their age group, the study found.

“Although the use of illicit substances by adolescents is well known, the use of contraband cigarettes in this age group is striking,” says the study, which was led by Russell Callaghan, a scientist with the social and community prevention research unit at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

The RCMP says that contraband cigarettes are generally defined as those that don’t comply with federal or provincial rules for importation, stamping, manufacturing, distribution, duty and taxes. Organized crime networks are responsible for much of the contraband market, according to the RCMP, and use native reserves and aboriginal communities to distribute their products. But production of contraband cigarettes on native reserves, such as the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, has exploded in recent years, one of the major reasons the problem is becoming more severe.

To determine youth contraband smoking rates, researchers used data from the 2006 to 2007 youth smoking survey, conducted by the University of Waterloo and sponsored by Health Canada. Results from the study, which looked at smoking habits of nearly 42,000 high-school students across the country, have already been published. Although the survey asked youth where their cigarettes were purchased from, the results didn’t focus on this aspect.

So a group of researchers, primarily based at Toronto’s CAMH, requested to use the raw data to determine how common illegal cigarettes are among Canada’s youth. In the study, 5.2 per cent of students were classified as daily smokers.

It’s one of the only comprehensive analyses of youth contraband smoking rates in Canada and should raise the alarm for policy makers about the seriousness of the problem, said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.

“This evidence demonstrates that a huge proportion of youth are having direct access to contraband, especially in Ontario and Quebec,” he said. “There are remedies that are available that have not yet been implemented. Governments must move forward expeditiously.”

Former public safety minister Stockwell Day struck a task force last year to examine the problem and ways to deal with it, but it doesn’t appear they’ve made an action plan or other significant headway, Mr. Cunningham said.

One way to diminish the contraband industry is to make it illegal to supply tobacco papers, packaging and other raw materials to unlicensed tobacco factories where illegal cigarettes online buyare produced, he said.

Another solution is to make it illegal to possess, purchase or consume contraband products, according to Dave Bryans, chair of the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco.

Mr. Bryans said he fears youth smoking rates will spike in coming years unless governments across Canada take strong, swift action to curb the growing problem.

“[Young people are] the easiest market to influence,” said Mr. Bryans, who is also president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association. “We’re going to have a terrible problem over the next 10 years.”

The booming contraband cigarette market has hurt many convenience stores across the country, and Mr. Bryans has been trying to get the government to take action for years, which is why his group recently launched a coalition against contraband tobacco. In addition to hurting small Canadian retailers, which work to enforce age requirements and other tobacco restrictions, Mr. Bryans said the black market for illegal cigarettes is exposing thousands of young Canadians to a market they otherwise couldn’t access easily.


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