Jacqueline Bradley doesn’t use the word naïve, but she admits that in the past, when it came to the problem of contraband cigarettes, she was “blissfully unaware” of the scope of the issue.
She comes from a non-smoking family, also a law enforcement family. She’s the mother of two teenage daughters who do not smoke. Cigarettes don’t have a place in her home.
“I figured there are lots of laws put into place to protect my kids, they don’t have access to cigarettes, they have to have IDs, they’re behind lock and key, you can’t even physically see them anymore,” she says.
But then came the day her 15-year-old daughter came home from a party and told her mother that people were passing out cigarettes from a Ziploc bag.
“In my house the only thing I want my kids passing around out of a Ziploc bag is a sandwich,” says Bradley.
Bradley knows the coalition has its work cut out for it. She says a study determined that between 30 and 40 per cent of the cigarettes being passed around in high schools in provinces such as Ontario and Quebec are contraband. For a toonie kids can buy a bag of smokes.
“They’re not looking for ID when they lift open the trunk of the car and say, ‘Kid, come here a minute,’” she says. “Sometimes these people will push it much like a drug. They’ll give them free cigarettes in a baggie. Of course, like anything else, once the kids try it and it’s cheap and easy to get, they’re going to keep doing it. I don’t think there is a drug dealer or a cigarette pusher in the world who is going to say, ‘Hey, are you 18? Are you 19? Even 16.’”
Bradley says her organization has been told by the RCMP that in this country there are around 175 organized crime groups that directly benefit from the sale of contraband cigarettes.
“It’s a very sophisticated problem with a very wide scope,” she says. Financial motivation for both the pusher and the buyer (remember, cheap smokes) only increases the problem.
Constable Derek McAlpine of the RCMP’s Southwest Nova Border Integrity Unit says southwestern Nova Scotia is not immune when it comes to contraband cigarettes.
“It’s becoming more prominent,” he says. “You get pockets of it here and there, but it is a problem.”
Cst. McAlpine says he’s not aware of any instances where illegal cigarettes have been passed around local school yards, but he says the RCMP unit is always looking to put a dent in the availability of contraband cigarettes and it also relies on the public to report any suspicious activity that might involve illegal cigarettes.
In June the RCMP unit seized what it is says were 13,200 contraband cigarettes. Two people have been charged and are due in court for plea in September.
Cst. McAlpine says aside from the fact that contraband cigarettes are illegal, there is an added health concern.
“These are unregulated, they’re not controlled by Health Canada, they’re usually put together in garages and stuff with poor quality tobacco so you just don’t know what you’re getting,” he says. “Not that cigarettes are a great thing to begin with, but you could be getting a lot more than just the tobacco when you’re doing this.”
The National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco also notes that the sale of illegal cigarettes hurts legitimate retailers who can’t compete with the low prices being offered on the streets. So small businesses are affected and there is less tax revenue for government.
Bradley says her coalition would like to see all levels of government come together to seriously combat the issue of contraband cigarettes. In particular young people need to be protected, she says. In this age of technology Bradley says it is not difficult for citizens to fire off emails to their elected representatives to voice their concerns.
Bradley admits people don’t view cigarettes and drugs in the same way. But just as people are concerned about drugs being passed around, she says, they should also be worried about contraband cigarettes.
“We need to protect our children from this,” Bradley says.