Contraband tobacco sales could be costing the B.C. government millions of dollars a year

Contraband cigarettes flowing freely in Greater Victoria

Illegal tobacco could be costing province as much as $120 million annually, says advocacy group

Contraband cigarettes are flowing freely across Greater Victoria, according to a study that traced the origin of about 6,100 cigarette butts across B.C.

The study, undertaken by Western Convenience Stores Association, found 20 to 25 per cent of cigarette butts collected at Camosun College and Royal Jubilee Hospital were illegally produced.

“It’s the rock bottom pricing that’s so appealing to young people in particular,” said Andrew Klukas, association president.

Contraband tobacco prices are as low as 10 per cent of the cost of legal cigarettes, Klukas said. Most of the product can be traced back to Ontario or Quebec, where raw U.S. tobacco is often smuggled across the border. Klukas said some sellers offer “baggies” of 200 cigarettes for as little as $10.

Samples collected at Saanich Plaza found only a three per cent prevalence of contraband tobacco, the lowest of the five Greater Victoria sites which also included Victoria High school and Mount St. Mary Hospital. About 700 cigarette butts were collected across the Capital Region.

“We want a good cross-section of smokers: court houses, hospitals and schools because we’re concerned about kids having access to contraband tobacco,” Klukas said.

The expectation was that contraband tobacco would be harder to obtain in B.C. than in other provinces. The Western Convenience Stores Association have conducted similar studies across Canada, but this marks the first study of its kind in B.C., where province-wide contraband tobacco use is estimated to be as high as 17.2 per cent.

“That’s $120 million a year in lost revenue for the B.C. government,” Klukas said.

It’s also higher than both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where contraband tobacco use was thought to comprise 14 and 10 per cent of the   market respectively.

Klukas said illegal tobacco is also being imported from Asia, though it’s difficult to estimate how much.

“Tobacco may be light but it’s bulky,” he said. “The Achilles heel for organized crime that deals in this is the size of Canada.

“With the Asian tobacco, they’re so good at packaging it to look legitimate, we can sometimes hardly distinguish them from legal cigarettes.”

In 2011, the RCMP seized nearly 600,000 cartons and unmarked bags of contraband cigarettes, 2,200 kilograms of raw leaf tobacco and 38,000 kilograms of fine cut tobacco.

Seized amounts decreased between 44 to 67 per cent in the first quarter of 2012, the most recent statistics available from the RCMP.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

 

 

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