News Releases

October 18, 2006

Physicians call for urgent action against cigarette smuggling.

(Ottawa - October 16, 2006)  In calling for government to act to curb illegal cigarette sales, a national anti-tobacco agency finds itself in the unusual position of agreeing with a cigarette manufacturer.

Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC) has reviewed the findings of a report released earlier this week by Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd (ITCan) regarding widespread purchases of illegal tobacco in Ontario and Quebec.

“Neither federal nor provincial governments, neither health ministries nor finance ministries have undertaken any systematic monitoring of cigarette smuggling,” said Neil Collishaw, research director for Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. “Because of the governments’ collective failure to monitor the usage of illegal cigarettes, Imperial Tobacco’s report is the most extensive survey available. While we cannot judge the study’s worth without more information on methodology and findings, the estimates of smuggling provided by Imperial Tobacco at least provide a basis for discussion and corrective action.”

“The irony that it is tobacco companies who are providing this information should be a source of embarrassment and shame to governments,” said Dr. Kapur, president of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. “These companies are steadily engaged in efforts to reduce tobacco taxes and to increase cigarette usage.  Allowing them to again set the agenda on smuggling shows a failure to learn from past mistakes.”  The role Imperial Tobacco and other tobacco companies played in fueling smuggling in the 1990s remains the subject of federal and provincial criminal and civil court actions.

Imperial Tobacco’s report found that illegal tobacco sales accounted for over 20% of cigarettes sold in Ontario and Quebec, compared with less than 2% in Western Canada and less than 5% in Atlantic Canada.  Smokers who purchased illegal cigarettes smoked considerably more than other smokers (17% of smokers accounted for 23% of cigarettes smoked).  Almost all of the illegally sold cigarettes (95%) came from First Nations reserves, though only 38% were actually purchased in reserves.  Others were delivered through friends or social sources (37%) or purchased at off-reserve retail outlets (20%).

The problem of off-reserve sales of cigarettes, in the view of PSC, is exacerbated by the policy of the federal government to not enforce tobacco and tax laws on some First Nations communities, even when the applicability of those laws on reserves is legally well established. “Tragically, all levels of government – provincial, federal and first nations – have tolerated the illegal sale of untaxed cigarettes to off-reserve smokers,” Dr. Kapur said.

“The health of aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians has become a casualty of the poor relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal governments,” he added. “Cheap cigarettes are a health risk for all Canadians, whatever their treaty status.”

"Federal and provincial governments have been reluctant to intervene in this growing contraband out of fear of provoking a confrontation," Neil Collishaw said, "but there are non-confrontational ways to regain control of the cigarette market.”

PSC recommends that the government implement changes to the way tobacco and other cigarette ingredients are monitored and taxed. By taxing tobacco before it enters the reserve (while providing tax rebates to those legally entitled to tax-free product) governments can remove financial incentives for cigarette manufacturing on reserve. Improvements to tax markings, and better surveillance systems on shipments of cigarettes, specialty papers and filters used in tobacco manufacturing, can also close down illegal manufacturing.

Neil Collishaw stressed the importance of government not being dependent on tobacco industry studies in this area. “Governments have a responsibility to ensure that they have timely and accurate knowledge about tobacco smuggling, and that they make this information public.”

PSC points to the failed potential of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a recently implemented global treaty, to be extended to aboriginal governments in Canada. “Over 140 countries have ratified this treaty, pledging to cooperate to reduce tobacco use and to curb smuggling” said Dr. Kapur.  “As aboriginal governments have not been encouraged to work within this treaty system, the greatest trans-boundary threat to controlling tobacco lies within the borders of Canada.”

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For information:    

Neil Collishaw, Research Director
Cynthia Callard, Executive Director
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada
Telephones: Office 1 613 233 4878, mobile 1 613 850 5594