Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 1 - June 2010
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Ontario health groups call for measures addressing contraband tobacco

By Joe Strizzi

Sales of contraband tobacco are widely believed to be one of the biggest threats to anti-smoking efforts, this according to a coalition of health groups. As such, the Ontario government needs to step up to the plate because political inaction is threatening to undermine efforts to protect young people from inducements to smoke.

“The government of Quebec has enacted expanded powers for police, and made supplying raw leaf tobacco to unlicensed manufacturers illegal,” said Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco (OCAT). “Saskatchewan has limited the [number of] legal brands supplied tax-free to reserves. Ontario must move in these same directions.”

OCAT was founded by five leading health agencies: the Canadian Cancer Society - Ontario Division, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, the Ontario Lung Association and the Ontario Medical Association, to secure the passage of Ontario’s Tobacco Control Act in 1992.

Citing statistics from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, OCAT claims that 60,000 Ontario high school students smoked contraband cigarettes at some point in 2009, while 53% of daily and occasional smokers reported having smoked contraband within the year. These statistics include daily and occasional smokers, as well as anyone who smoked more than one cigarette over the course of the year, but excludes those who simply tried a cigarette.

“This is a conservative estimate,” said Perley at a press conference on April 8. “This survey doesn’t take into account the youth who are not in school. Those kids, who in most cases are not in school for socio-economic reasons, are usually more likely to smoke, and therefore are probably more likely to be price sensitive as well.”

Price and youth

Perley estimates that a bag of 200 contraband cigarettes purchased on a First Nations reserve goes for as little as $10–15, whereas the lowest legal retail price for that quantity would be $50–55. “The results of the study undoubtedly show that youth are exposed to cheaper contraband cigarettes in some way,” said Perley.

“In high school, it’s very easy to get your hands on contraband cigarettes,” said Emily Butko, a 19-year-old Univer­sity of Toronto student representing the Ontario Lung Association. “They’re cheap. Cost is one of the top reasons why youth quit smoking, and with contraband, there is no incentive to quit and it is so easy for kids to start.”

“Smokers usually get hooked before the age of 20,” said Dr. Marco Buono of the Heart and Stroke Foundation. “Decades of research show that the high costs of cigarettes are the strongest deterrent for students, but cheap contraband cigarettes take that deterrent away.”

The numbers

According to RCMP statistics, the number of contraband seizures across Canada of illicit tobacco increased from approximately 25,000 cartons or resealable baggies in 2001 to roughly 975,000 in 2009, an all-time high.

Leslie O’Leary, a spokesperson for Ontario revenue minister John Wilkinson, said that about 74 million illegal cigarettes, 294,000 untaxed cigars and 32 million grams of fine-cut tobacco have been seized by ministry investigators and inspectors in Ontario over the last two years.

Take action

OCAT is calling for the provincial government to take the necessary steps to curb the illicit tobacco trade: providing police forces across Ontario with additional resources to enforce restrictions, prohibiting the supply of raw materials to unlicensed cigarette manufacturers, reforming the provincial quota system that allows First Nations access to products from Canadian tobacco companies tax free and mandating a health-based marking on every individ­ual cigarette sold in Ontario.

Although the problem of contraband tobacco is most prominent in Ontario and Quebec, where the density of the population and strategic location of the reserves along the US border makes manufacturing and distribution easier, it is an issue that reaches across the country. The RCMP says that contraband has seeped into western Canada and the Atlantic provinces. Also, the RCMP believes that a significant portion of the profits from illicit tobacco are used to fund illegal drug and firearms smuggling by organized crime.

Perley added that more needs to be done now, as kids start to believe the myth that surrounds the use of contraband cigarettes: that they are natural because they don’t have additives, and they are therefore safer to smoke.

“Additives don’t kill you, tobacco by-products, like tar, kill you,” Perley said.

Numbers not all bleak

The survey does show that the number of student smokers has declined significantly from 28.4% in 1999 to 11.7% in 2009.

However, declining smoking rates, despite an overall downward trend, have hit a plateau since 2007. Although no statistics directly connect the increase in contraband with this trend, Perley believes a correlation does exist.

“Smoking rates have declined every­where in North America, including areas without contraband issues, but it defies common sense to think that cheaper prices and easier exposure to illicit tobacco have not had some kind of effect on the number of student smokers,” Perley said. “We don’t know to what extent, but it is not possible that it doesn’t play some kind of role.”