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Cheap cigs burning retailers, group says

By Nicki Cruickshank, Barrie Examiner

Cheap cigarettes sold at native reserves and smoke shacks has a Canadian group all lit up.

The Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA) says these "black market tobacco sales" are butting out legitimate local retailers.

"Nationally, the industry lost $2.5 billion in tobacco sales to this black market of contraband tobacco," said Peter Seemann, CCSA's regional co-ordinator. "We're concerned from the convenience store's perspective. A significant amount of daily store sales is from tobacco. People aren't going to their corner store to by the newspaper and milk anymore.

"We want to draw attention to this unlevelled playing field that's affecting the 8,500 convenience stores we represent in this province."

According to CCSA, there are 350 smoke shacks in Ontario and Quebec, making it almost impossible for convenience stores to compete.

The group made a stop in Barrie Tuesday, promoting its window on contraband exhibit tour.

Seemann said the 25-city tour is meant to educate the public and lower contraband sales in the province.

"We're in the third week of our tour and we're trying to raise awareness of contraband tobacco and the impact it has on Ontario communities," he said. "We're trying to put pressure on both levels of government to get the high number of these sales down."

The campaign aims to drop the number of contraband tobacco sales in Ontario to 10% in 2010.

A trailer, filled with samples of what contraband tobacco products look like, acts as the group's awareness tool.

"Generally, these sales are between 25% and 35%, but in some areas, it's higher than 50%," he said. "We aren't saying First Nations reserves are the root of the problem, but that's where these smoke shops are located."

Seemann said convenience stores are under strict regulations with a product display ban, no sales to minors, taxes on tobacco products, health warnings visible on products, and no advertising allowed in stores.

"We're saying tobacco sales and regulations should go hand-in- hand (for all stores)," he said. "They have signs advertising cheap smokes, and their tobacco products are out on display in the store."

Seemann said CCSA also fears the relaxed laws at contraband shops will increase the access youth have to tobacco.

"If they don't have to ask for ID, what's to stop tobacco from getting into the hands of youth?" he said.

Seemann said local represent at i v e s from the federal and provincial governments have listened to CCSA.

"Barrie MP Patrick Brown has pledged his support to the campaign," he said.

"I have been able to share concerns about contraband products with the government, and am pleased the government is taking action on eliminating the contraband tobacco products that are funding criminal organizations and hurting small retail businesses," Brown said. "I will continue to work hard to ensure that the federal government has strong legislative tools in place to combat black market tobacco. I encourage Mr. Seemann's efforts in educating Canadian consumers about their harmful effect."

Barrie MPP Aileen Carroll said in a statement Tuesday that she has previously met with CCSA and has passed their views on to her government officials.

CCSA isn't the only organization that has taken issue with contraband sales.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit's tobacco program staff have, too. But supervisor John Niddery also feels CCSA has its own agenda.

"You have to question where the CCSA is coming from on this issue," Niddery said. "There's no doubt the contraband issue is huge. It's a very complicated and jurisdictional issue.

"There's a lot of tax evasion happening in these places, and cheap tobacco products aren't good for the public's health, especially those tempted while trying to quit."

But, although the health unit knows these places contradict the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, Niddery said the unit's hands are tied in stopping them.

"We're not in any position to go onto reserves and enforce that for jurisdictional reasons," he said. "We don't have clear direction from the Ontario government about where jurisdiction rights (are) for us. The reserves are federal lands."

But, Niddery said he doesn't approve of fingers only being pointed at native reserves for this problem.

"It's not a First Nations problem. There are people selling contraband tobacco out of the back of their vans, and it's being smuggled across the border too," he said.

Niddery said he hopes the provincial government will offer some hope in the new year.

"It's very discouraging for those of us working in the tobacco enforcement industry," he said, noting the Ontario Tobacco Control Strategy's five-year update to 2016 is coming out soon.

"We're expecting to hear more about this strategy in the new year and we're optimistic the government will set something in motion to tackle the contraband problem."

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