TORONTO - The latest study of cigarette butts collected around high schools in Ontario and Quebec suggests more teens are buying their smokes on the black market, prompting a call to make tobacco possession illegal for those under age 19.
The study commissioned by the Canadian Convenience Stores Association and the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, released Wednesday, found 30 per cent of butts gathered near Ontario high schools were contraband, up from 26 per cent last year.
The numbers were even higher in Quebec, where 45 per cent of the cigarette butts collected near high schools were contraband, up nine percentage points from 2008.
The figures for both provinces are the highest recorded since the studies near school yards were first done in 2007, said coalition spokesman Gary Grant, a retired Toronto police officer.
"One out of every three high school kids in Ontario who is smoking is choosing to buy his cigarettes from, basically, a criminal," Grant said in an interview.
It isn't just the teens that are attracted by the much lower prices for the illegal cigarettes, which often sell for about $1 dollar a pack instead of the usual retail price of about $8 for 20 cigarettes.
"About 50 per cent of all cigarettes being smoked in Ontario and Quebec are contraband, so adults are fuelling this industry just as much as kids," said Grant.
"But the (kids) are the ones most vulnerable, and the reason that it's so attractive to them is because they can't buy them in the stores."
While it's illegal for people under age 19 to buy cigarettes, it's not illegal for them to possess them.
Teens often gather just off school property to smoke, something authorities could easily deal with if possession of tobacco was illegal for the students, Grant said.
"You don't see them huddled around a case of beer or a few bottles of rye at lunch time because the government has made it illegal not only to purchase alcohol under age 19, but to possess it and consume it," said Grant.
"I believe that most kids would stop buying cigarettes of all kinds, never mind just contraband, if they couldn't possess them and smoke them."
The figures show teens are increasingly the target of criminals who sell illegal cigarettes, said Grant, adding the wide availability of contraband smokes is short-circuiting the government's anti-smoking efforts.
"There's this huge disconnect," he said.
"The kids themselves have no trouble smoking and there's nothing in place to stop them. If you can't buy it, why can you smoke it?"
Grant said when one of the first charges was laid last year against an Ontario motorist for smoking with a minor in the car, the teenage passenger got out and lit a cigarette while the driver was getting a ticket for exposing the youngster to second-hand smoke.
The study examined nearly 20,000 cigarette butts collected outside 110 Ontario high schools and 14,000 butts found outside 75 Quebec high schools.
Suburbs around Toronto had the highest rates of contraband cigarettes being smoked by teens, with nearly half the butts in Newmarket being illegal, compared with 43 per cent in Mississauga and 42 per cent in Aurora.
About 23 per cent of butts found around Toronto high schools were contraband, compared with 41 per cent in the Montreal area.
However, 83 per cent of the cigarette butts collected around schools in Chateaugay were contraband, as were 52 per cent of those in Laval.
The RCMP say most of the illegal cigarettes sold are smuggled into Canada though the Akwesasne reserve, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border near Cornwall, Ont.