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May 23rd, 2015:

Ontario overrun by illegal tobacco

We’re losing, organized crime is winning. It’s time to fight back

Ontario is the poster-child for the World Health Organization’s 2015 World No Tobacco Day and its theme to stop the illegal trade of tobacco products.

Often when the Geneva-based WHO observes a campaign on such important issues as malaria or tuberculosis, Ontarians are concerned observers, but are not at the centre of the matter.

But that’s not the case when it comes to illegal tobacco.

Ontario has one of the worst illegal tobacco crises in the world today.

Globally, illegal tobacco products account for about 1-in-10 cigarettes smoked.

But in Ontario, contraband tobacco now accounts for a shocking 1-in-3 cigarettes purchased.

This isn’t an area where we want to be a leader.

Illegal tobacco is a serious issue in communities across Ontario, including smuggling on First Nations reserves, that comes into sharp focus on World No Tobacco Day.

It is not a victimless crime: The RCMP estimates about 175 criminal gangs use profits from the sale of illegal tobacco to fund other gang activities, including guns, drugs and human smuggling.

Cheap, illegal tobacco products draw in young smokers and help get them started because of a dangerous mix of low prices and easy access, without the need to check I.D.

Illegal cigarettes are typically sold in resealable plastic bags of 200 sticks for as little as $8.

That’s far less than the cost of a movie ticket.

The illegal tobacco trade also robs Ontario of tax revenues that could be used to better fund key government programs.

It is a major part of Ontario’s underground economy, estimated to cost provincial taxpayers alone as much as $1.1 billion in lost revenues every year.

Tackling Ontario’s illegal tobacco problem won’t be easy.

The Ontario government announced plans for new action in the recent budget, but this is only the beginning of a long process.

The criminal gangs that run the trade won’t give up a steady and easy flow of profits from contraband tobacco easily.

To achieve this, Ontario will need to apply sustained pressure and add more aggressive anti-contraband measures as needed.

The provincial government must be careful not to add fuel to the contraband tobacco fire by driving more tobacco sales underground.

For example, the current proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, designed to help curb youth smoking, could actually result in the opposite by driving more than 300 million cigarettes a year into the illicit market, where they are even more easily and cheaply accessed by young people.

Contraband tobacco weakens efforts by health advocates and government to educate people about the use of these products.

Baggies filled with illegal cigarettes contain no health warnings.

If young people are not asked to show identification when buying illicit products, it makes it impossible to control their access to tobacco.

Contraband tobacco unwinds much of the positive progress that has been made in terms of tobacco regulations and efforts to promote cessation.

Society loses. Organized crime wins.

That’s why, on World No Tobacco Day, Sunday, May 31, the WHO is asking the public to recognize the adverse health, economic and social impacts of the illicit trade of tobacco products, including the linkages with human trafficking and organized drug crimes.

It’s essential that people realize the contraband tobacco trade is not a victimless crime and alert authorities if they come across it.

The public can support the fight against contraband tobacco on social media, for example by following the hashtag #notobacco on Twitter.

Social media users can also share pictures of the WHO’s “Beware! Illegal tobacco” poster, available at

This World No Tobacco Day, let’s focus first on the problem at home, right here in Ontario.
— Grant is spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, a former Toronto police officer and director and founder of Toronto Crime Stoppers.​

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