Stop turning a blind eye to illegal tobacco trade

By MPP Toby Barrett

The Ontario government has allowed the illegal tobacco industry to flourish.

It is believed contraband tobacco activity in Ontario sits somewhere around 33 per cent and in some areas the numbers are estimated to be closer to 50 per cent. Many argue the illegal industry in Ontario is the worst of any advanced economy in the Western world.

When we look at other provinces, the numbers are not nearly as dramatic – British Columbia’s contraband rate sits around 17 per cent while Manitoba comes in at 14.7 per cent and Saskatchewan only 10.8 per cent.

Each year, like clockwork, government brings forward legislation – typically a budget bill – that either ostensibly encourages healthier smoking habits or proposes new measures to combat illegal smokes. Most often these measures mean higher taxes on legal products, which exacerbate the problem. I have long called for – even through a Private Members Bill – the reduction of tobacco taxes in order to eliminate the competitive advantage of the illegal market.

Government efforts to date have not worked. Since 2008 the overall rate of smoking in Ontario remains at 18 per cent, or one in five. This means 2.1 million Ontarians light up despite all the legislation and regulation.

Ontario also boasts the highest level of young smokers in Canada. High school students in Haldimand-Norfolk can walk to the parking lot and buy cheap smokes out of the trunk of a car without having to show ID. Accessibility is at the root of this stubbornly high consumption.

My colleague Tim Hudak recently asked the Wynne government why it won’t recognize illegal tobacco dealers for what they are – drug dealers — correctly accusing, “…they’re taking advantage of our youth and getting them hooked on a deadly product.”

Perhaps government feels the same as those who believe contraband tobacco is harmless. The truth remains, illegal activity opens trade for not only tobacco but also drugs, firearms, and human smuggling. These activities are being run by some of the most notorious gangs in North America.

One of the biggest problems I have is that governments pick the low-hanging fruit. Instead of getting to the root – those who manufacture, smuggle and deal – government focusses on tobacco growers, and smokers who buy at the shacks.

As a result, the illegal cigarette dealers, those who smuggle, those who manufacture, have little to worry about. It’s low-risk and lucrative for organized crime.
Recently, the Wynne government banned menthol cigarettes – it’s just a matter of time before that product goes underground. Before we make more changes on the legal side, shut down the illegal.
In Quebec there’s been a dramatic improvement since police were given greater authority to investigate, seize and restrict cigarette-manufacturing equipment and vehicles. Further, they are provided the financial resources and incentive. In fact, Quebec municipal police detachments are allowed to keep any proceeds of crime that come from any tobacco convictions, instead of handing the money over to the federal government.
The current government needs to go bigger and bolder on illegal smokes and treat it like the drug that it is — not just as a nuisance. Bargain with First Nations — provide incentive and reward. Give police greater authority. Lock up the criminals and bulldoze the cigarette equivalent of meth labs.
Normally, if something isn’t working, try something different.