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Organized Crime Profits Off Ontario's Illegal Tobacco Problem

12/10/2015 11:22 EST | Updated 12/10/2016 05:12 EST
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Lit Cigarette and Ashtray on Stainless Steel.

Did you know that one in three cigarettes purchased in Ontario are illegal? And that criminal groups are using that money to finance their organizations and traffic in guns and drugs?

Unfortunately, many people don't know these alarming trends. A recent survey shows that about half of Ontarians are unaware that illegal tobacco is fueling organized crime. The survey -- entitled The Guns and Drugs in Our Backyards: What Ontarians Don't Know About Illegal Tobacco -- reveals the need for greater awareness and action around this important and dangerous public safety issue.

Sounding the alarm: Ontario is worst in Canada

Ontario's economy may be sluggish, but the black market for illegal cigarettes is thriving. The rising sale of contraband tobacco has reached a critical level -- in fact, the province has the worst illegal cigarette problem in Canada by far. In the rest of Canada and in many other countries, only about 10 per cent of the cigarette market is contraband. In Ontario, it's three times that.

All Ontarians should be concerned. This is a serious problem that impacts all cities, communities and families across the province, including the GTA. Cheap prices, easy access and no age checks means teens, who shouldn't be smoking at all, are having no trouble getting tobacco through the black market. The proof is all over the schoolyard, with studies finding shocking amounts of contraband cigarette butts littered around school property.

These cigarettes are made in as many as 50 illegal and therefore unregulated factories in Ontario and Quebec, which are able to produce up to 10,000 cigarettes per minute. There is no government taxation, inspection or control.

A cash cow for organized crime

To make a bad situation even worse, illegal cigarettes make our communities less safe by serving as a cash cow for organized crime. Many organized crime groups have become involved in the market for illicit tobacco because of the high profits and low risk, making this a much different and larger problem than it has been in past decades. The RCMP estimates that many of the 175 criminal gangs involved in the contraband trade use the profits to finance their other illegal activities, including guns, drugs and human smuggling.

While a larger contraband market means better-funded gangs, it also means a major loss of government revenue, with Ontario taxpayers losing about one billion dollars a year while profits are being diverted into the pockets of criminals.

Taking the oxygen out of organized crime

We must take a stand. The illegal trade in cigarettes has to be dealt with decisively. Most Ontarians agree. In the survey mentioned earlier, when Ontarians learned the facts around this issue, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) expressed their support for action on this file -- including tougher penalties for illegal tobacco traffickers and added powers and funding for law enforcement.

This year, Ontario took control of raw-leaf production to better monitor and control leaves intended for the legitimate tobacco industry. However, the province still has room to take measures as tough as those in Quebec, which gives funding and added powers to local and regional law enforcement agencies. Quebec has reduced contraband's share of the market to about 15 per cent (half that of Ontario) through a coordinated effort among multiple law enforcement agencies across the province.

Last month, the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco launched an advertising campaign in Ontario to drive awareness of the production, distribution and sale of illegal tobacco and the impact it has on local communities across the province. The campaign involved print, radio, online and social ads, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

To learn more about the facts linking organized crime to the sale of illegal tobacco, visit StopIllegalTobacco.ca. To join the discussion on Twitter, use the hashtag #StopIllegalTobacco.

Awareness is a critical first step in addressing this, not just among consumers but among the public and government. We must all work together to stop contraband tobacco and keep our communities safe.

Ontario's Black Market For Illegal Cigarettes Funds Crime

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