OTTAWA — The lobby group representing Canada’s tobacco companies, convenience stores and customs officers has given the federal government a failing grade for weak efforts to crack down on black-market cigarettes.
The National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco (NCACT) assigned the government an F overall for failing to make progress on contraband tobacco, downgrading them from a D on a report issued in last May.
“The Harper government’s response to this problem amounts to unfulfilled promises or activities that have more public relations value than real impact,” Gary Grant, a spokesperson for NCACT, said at a news conference on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning. “It’s a government that talks tough on crime, but doesn’t follow through, in this area at least.”
The seizure this month of 45,000 cartons containing 14 million contraband cigarettes in Alberta suggests a problem previously confined mostly to Ontario and Quebec is spreading across the country, said Grant, a 39-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service.
The NCACT chose National Non-Smoking Week to unveil its latest report card because the group is concerned about the easy access young people have to black-market cigarettes, he said.
“Kids who shouldn’t be smoking at all are having no trouble getting their hands on illegal cigarettes,” he said. “We see evidence that more and more youth are accessing cigarettes this way, and the federal government is simply not doing enough to stop it.”
Members of the NCACT include the Canadian Convenience Stores Association, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Customs and Immigration Union, Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council, which is comprised of the country’s three largest tobacco companies — Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans Benson and Hedges Inc., and JTI-Macdonald Corp.
Contraband tobacco poses a threat to legitimate businesses forced to compete with the black market, said Denis Hamel, vice-president of public affairs for the Federation des chambres de commerce du Quebec.
“Retailers in particular are seeing not just lost tobacco sales, but lost customers and the entire range of products they would normally buy,” he said.
Grant said organized crime groups use the “huge profits” of illegal tobacco sales to fund other criminal activity, such as drugs and weapons trafficking.
The only area in which the federal government improved its standing from the previous report card was in law enforcement, earning an improved B grade, in large part due to the creation of the RCMP-led Cornwall (Ont.) Regional Task Force, he said.
Mike Patton, spokesman for the minister of public safety, said the illicit manufacturing and sale of illegal cigarettes has a significant impact on the economy, public safety and health.
He said the government has established a contraband task force led by the RCMP; the Canada Border Services Agency will establish a detector dog service in Montreal and Vancouver, where the highest amount of contraband activity takes place; and the Canada Revenue Agency will develop an ad campaign to raise awareness among Canadians about the negative impacts of buying contraband cigarettes.
“These initiatives build upon our existing efforts to disrupt and reduce contraband tobacco,” he said.