Alberta must be mindful of illegal tobacco trade as budget approaches

Spotlight Staff

With the release of the Alberta budget only days away, the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco (NCACT) warned that action on the province’s illegal tobacco market must be made a priority or risk getting out of control as it has in other parts of the country.

“Contraband tobacco is a bigger problem in Canada than ever. In late March, Operation Mygale, the biggest illegal tobacco bust in North American history, took place in Canada and involved over 700 police officers. It resulted in the arrests of more than 60 people and included the seizure of close to 53,000 kg of tobacco. According to law enforcement groups, over the past 18 months the criminals involved in this bust illegally imported into Canada close to 2,300 tons of processed tobacco, which represents a total production of 4 billion cigarettes,” said Gary Grant, a 39-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service and national spokesperson for the NCACT. “This bust also included the seizure 836 of kilograms of cocaine and other drugs, making it one of the three largest seizures done in Canada in the past 25 years. Clearly this is a problem which isn’t getting better, and Alberta is not immune to it.”

The illegal tobacco market is a major issue in Canada, with 1 in 3 cigarettes purchased in Ontario alone over the past year being contraband. Last year’s cigarette butt studies conducted across Alberta by the Western Convenience Store Association found that at some spots, 40 per cent of butts found were contraband. The contraband tobacco trade is not a victimless crime. The RCMP estimates that the trade is connected to over 175 organized criminal gangs who use it to fund their other illegal activities, including guns, drugs and human smuggling.

“With the upcoming budget, it’s important that the Alberta government include new enforcement measures to address the illegal cigarette problem,” said Grant. “We see with increasing frequency that more and more, criminal gangs are beginning to smuggle contraband tobacco into other provinces, particularly out west. It’s critical that the province take it as a serious issue and make it more difficult for the criminals involved in the trade to profit from it.”

Contraband cigarettes are produced in 50 illegal factories across Canada. Each can produce millions of cigarettes in a day. Contraband tobacco is also a major drain on the public purse. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has estimated that illegal cigarettes in Ontario alone cost taxpayers as much as $1.1 billion in lost revenues each year.

“Tackling illegal cigarettes is important for Alberta communities. It hurts organized crime and helps to make tobacco control regulations more effective,” continued Grant. “We hope to see real measures against contraband in the budget, including more powers to police, and measures to make it harder to manufacture contraband cigarettes. It’s key that the government get active on this illegal trade before it hits the point of being completely out of control.”

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