OTTAWA – The Harper government is pledging to crack down on the burgeoning contraband cigarette industry by beefing up policing and appealing to the conscience of Canadians.
The plan, unveiled Wednesday by Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, is aimed at reducing the number of illegal cigarettes that are being seized across the country. A record 618,000 cartons were grabbed by the Mounties last year alone.
“The manufacture and sale of illegal tobacco has evolved considerably and, I might say, dangerously over the last number of years,” Day said.
“It used to be individuals here and there … but it has now evolved into high levels of criminal activity.”
Day said the RCMP will dedicate more officers to anti-contraband units, although he didn’t say how many.
The government will also launch a public awareness campaign to try to convince Canadians to stop buying illegal smokes. The ads will warn smokers that their money is being used to fund organized crime groups, Day said.
The tobacco industry welcomed the announcement, but was awaiting details.
The Canadian Cancer Society warned any crackdown will fail unless the government attacks the major sources of contraband tobacco, which police say are manufacturing plants on the American side of the Akwesasne reserve that straddles the borders between New York, Ontario and Quebec.
“It is essential that minister Day insist that the U.S. government shut down the illegal production on the U.S. side of Akwesasne,” said society analyst Rob Cunningham.
The factories use cheap loose tobacco from states such as North Carolina to manufacture plain, unmarked cigarettes and divide them into plastic bags of 200, police say.
The “baggies,” as they are often called in the underground trade, can sell for less than $20 on the street – a far cry from the price of legal smokes which ranges from $65 to $85, depending on the province.
Day said there have been talks between the U.S. and Canadian governments.
Police across Canada have been several big busts over the last year.
Last October, RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador announced their largest-ever seizure of contraband tobacco – 500,000 cigarettes from a home in St. John’s.
In January, Manitoba RCMP seized 1.5 million contraband cigarettes that police allege had been trucked in from Central Canada.
In March, Quebec Provincial Police reported breaking an organized crime ring that allegedly brought contraband tobacco to Nova Scotia from Akwesasne and Kahnawake, south of Montreal.