Ontario’s teens, seniors and shopping mall patrons are hooked on illegal tobacco, according to a presentation from the Ontario Convenience Stores Association to Brantford city council on Monday.
OCSA CEO Dave Bryans asked councillors to pass a resolution supporting the association’s petition for stiffer penalties for contraband tobacco sales and more police powers to disrupt illegal smoke rings.
“Contraband tobacco is the scourge of every community in Ontario, and it isn’t going away,” Bryans said. “It’s infiltrating our stores, our malls, our seniors homes and unfortunately, our high schools.”
Citing statistics from the Attorney General’s office, Bryans said the illicit sale of contraband tobacco – which refers to cigarettes manufactured illegally and not subject to government regulations regarding import, stamping and distribution – has robbed the provincial and federal governments of $500 million in tax revenue that could be used for social programs like health care and education.
Unregulated tobacco is sold in smoke shacks on native reserves for as little as $10 for a bag of 200 cigarettes. The cheap cost of underground smokes and lax enforcement of age restrictions encourage underage youth to take up smoking and squeeze out licensed convenience stores, Bryans said.
According to the OCSA report, one in three smokers use illegal cigarettes. A 2010 survey of discarded cigarette butts found that 37 per cent of cigarettes smoked in Brantford were illegal, compared to a provincial average of 30 per cent. The figures were even higher for youth.
The problem is pronounced in Brant, Bryans said.
In May 2010, two Ohsweken men were charged after police found $500,000 worth of contraband cigarettes in their van. Last June, the RCMP uncovered two caches of illegal cigarettes – some 725,000 in total – in Windsor that were deemed to come from the Brantford area.
“While these major busts show tobacco enforcement officials are acting quickly to stop the spread of contraband, it also indicates that Brantford is a hotbed for contraband tobacco activity,” Bryans said.
Brantford signing onto the OCSA petition would increase the chorus of municipalities supporting the province’s call for increased fines for anyone convicted of selling tobacco to minors, and stronger sanctions against retailers who flout provincial age laws.
Changes to the Tobacco Tax Act scheduled to come into effect this October will see increased regulation of raw leaf tobacco.
Tobacco growers, processors and dealers would have to register and report to the Ministry of Finance so the government can track raw tobacco through the supply chain. Those found with small amounts of untaxed, illegal tobacco could face tickets and have the product seized.
Police would also have more authority to impound vehicles and seize the proceeds of illegal tobacco sales.
Raw tobacco leaves are sometimes stolen from farms in Brant County, but Const. Natalie Laing said illegal tobacco isn’t a major concern for Brantford police.
“It’s not really on the radar within the city of Brantford,” Laing said. “We don’t really see a lot of it, and if we do, we’d be calling the OPP and sharing that information.”
Councillors expressed their hope that government, law enforcement and First Nations can work together to combat a problem that affects the local community.
The OCSA represents 7,500 convenience stores ranging from national chains to independents.