12/11/2013 06:30 EST | Updated 02/10/2014 05:59 EST

Saskatchewan not enforcing tobacco law, Cancer Society says

The Canadian Cancer Society says recent numbers obtained by CBC's iTeam show the Saskatchewan government is failing to enforce legislation banning the sale of tobacco to minors. 

Until a year ago, Ottawa enforced the law by sending teenage shoppers into stores across the province to attempt to purchase tobacco.

It's against the law to sell tobacco to minors and a violation can result in fines of $500 to $50,000. 

In 2011-2012, Ottawa issued violation notices to 201 stores in Saskatchewan, resulting in 62 voluntary payment tickets and three court convictions.

But since the fall of 2012, when the provincial government started to enforce the law on a complaints basis, there have been very few complaints.

"It's a relatively low number," said Tim Macaulay from the Ministry of Health. "It's six that we're aware of."

The Canadian Cancer Society says that's proof the province’s complaints-based approach doesn't work.

"It sounds to me like the approach they're taking is they're not enforcing the laws," said the cancer society's Donna Pasiechnik.

She said enforcement in Saskatchewan is urgently needed because its youth smoking rate is 20 per cent, double the national average.

"This is a big concern. We're trying to prevent kids from buying tobacco. We have the laws in place so that retailers cannot sell tobacco. But no one's enforcing the laws."

In the fall of 2012 Ottawa discontinued its test shopper program, as part of a series of cuts to its tobacco control strategy, leaving that responsibility to the provinces.

Saskatchewan decided not to continue the test shopper approach to enforcement. 

"We're not sure how beneficial that program was. It certainly did pick up on some non-compliance issues. But it was a very costly program so we are taking this our own approach," said Macaulay.

That approach is complaints based, responding to reports of people who may have witnessed stores selling to minors. 

In 2012-2013 the ministry received six complaints and none of those incidents resulted in fines. 

The most recent national numbers from Ottawa, gathered in 2009, show that random testing discovered 85 per cent compliance across the country and 80 per cent in Saskatchewan. 

Macaulay said the government believes the vast majority of retailers are compliant with the law so there's no need for random testing.

"But certainly that is something that we'll be looking at if we find that there's a lot of non-compliance going on," he said.

The Cancer Society sees a flaw in that reasoning.

"How do you know if people in fact are complying or not unless you go in with test shoppers and see if in fact they're selling to kids,” asked Pasiechnik.

CBC's iTeam runs secret shopper test

CBC's iTeam ran a test in Regina to see if stores in the city were complying with the legislation. 

Two 16-year-old teenagers were wired with hidden cameras and sent into 21 stores to see if they would be able to purchase cigarettes. 

In four cases, the teens were successful.

For example, a 16-year-old girl purchased a pack at Cree Land Mini-Mart in Regina's North Central neighbourhood. 

The manager Doug McRae said, "I'm disappointed that my staff didn't ask of her age."

McRae says he regularly talks with his employees about the importance of asking for identification from customers who appear young. 

"We're very busy. We put a lot of customers through and they get sloppy and they get out of the habit of asking."

Doug McRae was surprised that Ottawa is no longer running the test-shopper program and that the province has decided to not continue it.

He says the threat of secret teen shoppers helps him keep his staff vigilant.

"If I warn them and say you can be checked, you have to be vigilant, you have to be conscious because at any one time someone can be spot-checking you, it helps. It just does."

Selling to minors in North Central

The three other offending stores are also located in North Central Regina.

The cancer society says that fact makes enforcement of the law even more urgent. 

"We know there's a higher percentage of aboriginal people and people who are poor [living in North Central] and we know that smoking rates in both of those groups are higher," Pasiechnik said.

The ministry of health says it's concerned about what CBC's iTeam discovered.

"Certainly that's new information to us. If you would like to pass on the name of those stores we'll certainly follow up on those. And that's in line with our overall approach is we respond to complaints," Macaulay said.

Cancer Society says province not doing enough

The cancer society said the province takes in at least $250M in tobacco taxes every year, yet spends a fraction of that amount, about $500,000, on reducing tobacco use. 

"We're spending about a half a million,” said Pasiechnik. "That's just shocking to me."

She said test shoppers are just one piece of an overall strategy that should be pursued in Saskatchewan. 

The provincial government said while it believes that compliance with the law is high it probably could do more to promote its new approach to enforcement.