Campaign targets illegal smokes
Saying illegal smokes are linked to a range of burning problems, from increases in kids’ smoking to more guns on the street, an anti-contraband tobacco group is turning to the public.
The National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco is launching a campaign Wednesday asking people in Southwestern Ontario’s tobacco belt and the rest of the province to help police snuff out “the growing problem” by reporting tips to Crime Stoppers.
“Basically, we want to stop the contraband activity in our neighbourhoods, make them a lot safer,” said Jacqueline Bradley, the coalition’s executive director who got involved after her 15-year-old daughter brought a cigarette in a zip-lock bag home from a party.
“I started as an irate mother,” said Bradley, who lives in Oakville.
“Before that I was blissfully oblivious,” she said. “I knew convenience stores keep that stuff under lock and key.”
The province has laws meant to curtail the sale of cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18. Smokes have to be kept covered in convenience stores and owners are subject to heavy fines for selling to minors. But those laws don’t apply to the black market where there isn’t any age restriction and you can buy a bag of 200 cigarettes for the price of a movie ticket.
Bradley did research and learned the smoke her daughter brought home came from another kid from school. More alarming, she said, was the information that linked illegal cigarettes to organized gangs, who use the profits to fund other illegal activities.
“I don’t want anything funding guns, drug running and human smuggling in my community,” she said.
The RCMP estimates about 175 organized crime groups are involved in the contraband tobacco trade. Crime Stopper stats show about one-third of cigarettes bought in Ontario are contraband, but last July that percentage spiked to 42%, said Gary Grant, a former police officer who works with the coalition.
“We’ve been urging the government to take stronger action, but we realize maybe we should be reaching out to the public,” he said. “We wanted to do a heavy awareness campaign. It doesn’t seem to be on the radar as much as we’d like.”
The campaign is a partnership with Toronto Crime Stoppers and aims to make a connection with people in the London region, where last spring RCMP charged nine people with selling tobacco on the black market.
During the investigation that led to those arrests, police said they seized in searches around London, Woodstock and Brantford $300,000 worth of contraband tobacco, 45 shotguns, almost 1,000 marijuana plants, cocaine, ketamine, hashish, ecstasy, several vehicles and $85,000,
Though the conversation about illegal smokes often turns to high taxes on legal ones, Grant said that’s not something the coalition is interested in tackling.
“I know many people call for a reduction in taxes, but we don’t support getting into a price war with criminals,” he said. “We’re not trying to find ways to make it easier to smoke.”
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The National Anti Contraband Tobacco Coalition and Toronto Crime Stoppers are asking the public to report information about contraband tobacco sales by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
The coalition also urges people to visit stopcontrabandtobacco.ca and ask local MPPs to do the same.