New group joins fight against contraband tobacco

Calls for police enforcement

by Bill Jackson - The Regional

April 14, 2010

A new coalition comprised of organizations such as the Ontario Medical Association, Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation is calling on the provincial government to provide municipal police forces across Ontario with additional resources to enforce restrictions on contraband tobacco.

According to a press release issued by the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco (OCAT) that cites research undertaken by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, more than 60,000 Ontario students (Grade 7-12) who already smoke are reportedly now smoking contraband cigarettes.

"This is a conservative estimate," stated Dr. Marco Di Buono, director of research at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. " Most smokers start before the age of 20. For those who stay addicted long-term, about half die from the health effects of cigarette smoking. If we can prevent kids from starting or continuing to smoke cheap cigarettes, our chances of a smoke-free generation increase dramatically."

The press release cites several brands of contraband tobacco such as "First Nations-made clear plastic bags (baggies) of 200 cigarettes or packaged brands such as DKs or Sago, or tax-free legal brands made off-reserve," many of which are available right here in Haldimand County.

"All it takes is a couple of phone calls to find someone selling contraband from the trunk of their car. At $15-20 for a bag of 200 cigarettes, they're cheap. It's terrible, because cost is one of the top reasons why youth quit smoking. With contraband, there is no incentive to quit and so easy for kids to start," said Emily Butko, a teenager representing the Ontario Lung Association.

"The increasing availability of contraband is undermining doctors' years of work on tobacco control," said Dr. Suzanne Strasberg, president of the Ontario Medical Association. "We don't want someone selling cigarette baggies to our kids, or to our adult patients."

The OCAT is also asking the provincial government to prohibit the supply of raw materials to unlicensed cigarette manufacturers and reform the provincial quota system under which products from Canadian tobacco companies are supplied tax-free to First Nations. Some of this tax-free quota is now resold to non-First Nations Ontarians, the OCAT charges.

Until now, irregular enforcement efforts undertaken by Ontario's Ministry of Revenue have targeted the purchasers of illegal tobacco, not the sellers.

"The Government of Quebec has enacted expanded powers for police and made supplying raw leaf tobacco to unlicensed manufacturers illegal. Saskatchewan has limited the legal brands supplied tax-free to reserves. Ontario must move in these same directions," said Michael Perley, OCAT Director.

Organizers on behalf of the Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) continued to keep the issue of illegal smoke shacks front and center last Sunday during a rally on Argyle Street south, across from the Plank 1 smoke shack.

The smoke shack which opened in 2007 is situated on provincial land.

"The issue is contraband tobacco and the failure of the OPP to police it effectively," said Doug Fleming, a rally organizer.

Fleming added that police policy has been determined by native activists during the past four years. Illegal smoke shacks aren't the worst problem in Haldimand County, he said, "but they are easily visible and could be dealt with."

Approximately 40 supporters gathered across from the smoke shack on the west side of Argyle street South.

This time, rally organizers spoke with the OPP prior to the protest so that opposing viewpoints wouldn't clash. Rallies outside the Lions Hall in recent weeks were cancelled because organizers were prevented from speaking due to loud gestures and interruptions that were deemed confrontational.

On Sunday, members on behalf of the Canadian Union of Public Employees again joined in solidarity with an aboriginal contingent from Six Nations outside the smoke shack, on the other side of the road.

"I think the big issue is that this entire continent used to be native land and it was taken away from them and they have a legal right to sell tobacco, to sell their goods, to exist as a society, and ultimately this is s political issue, not a policing issue," said CUPE spokesman, Tom Keefer. "What Mr. Fleming is saying is that the police should come in and make arrests. And we're saying it's about politics, it's not about policing...

"I believe that the Haudenosaunee are sovereign people and historically they've been incredibly poorly treated by our government, and that our side of things - the non-native side - has broken all sorts of promises and all sorts of agreements that we've made."

Keefer said he hadn't read anything about the recent efforts of the Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation to address the contraband tobacco issue, so he wouldn't comment.

"Our volunteers and staff are very concerned about this issue. The Canadian Cancer Society in Ontario will expand its anti-contraband efforts at the community level in the months ahead, to help get the message across that our kids must be protected,: said Rowena Pinto, senior director of public affairs.