One in seven smokes contraband in B.C.: survey

Contraband tobacco products account for one in seven smokes in B.C. — almost 50 per cent higher than the Alberta rate, says the president of the Western Convenience Stores Association, who cited the prevalence of illegal gangs as a major factor.

About 10 per cent of Alberta cigarettes are deemed to be illegal compared to almost 15 per cent in B.C. based on analysis of nearly 7,000 butts, said Andrew Klukas, noting there are 177 gangs skilled in distribution of good such as illegal tobacco. In one seizure, millions of dollars worth of illegal Asian cigarettes manufactured to replicate Canadian cigarettes were discovered at the Port of Vancouver two years ago.

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An association survey released Wednesday provided data for 44 B.C. sites, including eight in Greater Victoria where contraband and legal butts were anonymously collected from Sept. 14 to Oct. 2.

The survey indicated 14.9 per cent of tobacco products used in B.C. are illegal, down from 15.6 per cent in 2014. Samples gathered in five Victoria locations show a significant drop to 11.6 per cent from 17.4 per cent in last year’s survey but illegal use in Langford appears to have nearly doubled from 6.8 per cent to 13.1 per cent. The margin of error is estimated at 1.3 per cent for the total number, 10 per cent for the individual sites.

At least 122 butts were collected at each site. Victoria locations were Camosun College, Royal Jubilee Hospital, Mount St. Mary Hospital, Victoria High School and Saanich Plaza.

Vic High had the lowest number of butts of all six B.C. high schools surveyed at 9.9 per cent; highest was 19.7 per cent at Surrey’s Tamanawis Secondary School.

The highest percentage of illegal smoking material — 18.4 per cent — was found at Camosun College. It was 8.9 per cent at Royal Jubilee; 9.0 per cent at Mount St. Mary's and 9.9 per cent at Vic High.

Langford locales were led by Westshore Town Centre with 14.5 per cent; Belmont Secondary school at 13.8 per cent and Priory Hospital on Goldstream Avenue 11 per cent.

The Vancouver average for all 14 sites surveyed was highest at 28.7 per cent; lowest was 9.7 per cent in Kelowna. Victoria ranked fourth lowest at 11.6 per cent and Langford sixth highest at 13.1 per cent.

The association defines contraband as tobacco that has not incurred appropriate taxes and duty; counterfeit products and those without brand names, foreign brands and untaxed native brands sold off reserve. Klukas estimated illegal tobacco costs B.C. more than $100 million in lost tax revenue per year, based on current tobacco excise revenue of about $700 million.

Ministry of Finance spokesman Jamie Edwardson said he could not confirm the estimated loss, but noted that the province has introduced a new excise stamp for packages of cigarettes and fine-cut tobacco that will be tougher to counterfeit. By Jan. 1, retailers will not be able to purchase, sell or store products without the new seal.

Klukas said that unlike Ontario and Quebec, B.C.’s Tobacco Tax Act does not mention illegal tobacco, making it “circuitous” for police to charge people they find in possession of illegal smokes.

Illicit tobacco is sold without health warnings or age-verification checks, says the association that represents 2,700 B.C. gas station and convenience retailers and their affiliates who sell legal tobacco products. Sales of illegal products cut into sales of legal ones and the other purchases smokers usually make.

Kuklas found the prevalence of contraband cigarettes dropped near schools to be troubling.

“We’re finding all these cigarette butts around schools — there shouldn’t be any,” Kuklas said. “So where are they getting them?

“Kids have less money and they are amazing communicators on social media,” he said. “As soon as one finds out where you can get tobacco for half price or less, everybody knows.” Traffickers in illegal tobacco don’t worry about underage sales or lack of health warnings, and can be involved in more serious criminal activity, he said.

B.C. has an anonymous tip line to report the illegal sale and distribution of cigarettes, toll-free at 1-877-977-0858.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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