2013 Quiet Story: The Contraband Tobacco Bill

2013 Quiet Story: The Contraband Tobacco Bill

By N Oji Mzilikazi

Originally appeared in Montreal Community Contact Volume 24, Number 01 January 9, 2014

Prior to the video surfacing of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford so empowered by alcohol intoxication that he vented he could kill someone, the March 26, 2013, Toronto Star quoted Councillor Sarah Doucette saying: Other councillors have reported, ‘for at least a year,’ seeing Ford appearing intoxicated at ‘festivals, galas, and other evening events.’”

Given the weight of statistical and irrefutable evidence in regards to alcohol and its harm, also the steadily increasing consumption of alcohol by youths, you’d think the Federal government would gladly expend energies towards a national strategy to reduce alcohol consumption; educate John Public on the harmful effects of alcohol, and see to it that television is free from alcohol advertisements.

In keeping with the Harper government penchant to serve the interests of Big Business and protect streams of revenue, an alcohol policy is not on its agenda. Tobacco is – and not from a health standpoint.

March 5, 2013, the Tories introduced a bill in the Senate that creates a new Criminal Code offence for trafficking in contraband tobacco.

In line with their tough-on-crime stance, the bill comes with mandatory minimum prison sentences. And since, as Public Safety Minister Vic Toews explains, “Contraband tobacco fuels the growth of organized criminal networks,” a 50-officer RCMP anti-contraband force was being created to target illegal tobacco sales.

Coincidently, March 6, 2013, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health published the report: “Strategies to Reduce Alcohol-Related Harms and Costs in Canada: A Comparison of Provincial Policies.” Its conclusion:  Alcohol is one of the greatest public health threats in Canada.

While organised crime has its hands in contraband tobacco, the marijuana/drugs trade out West has competing gangs frequently executing open and brazen killings and innocent citizens shot and/or killed. Illegal tobacco has had no such blood-letting, so why is it worth a 50-officer task force?

Vancouver has the insalubrious title of Canada’s gang capital. The B.C. Integrated Gang Task Force lists the province as having at least 129 organized-crime groups.

In February 2009, federal Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Peter Van Loan not only acknowledged British Columbia as having the largest number of organized-crime gang groups in Canada, but stated: The province has “the largest number of very sophisticated organized-crime groups – those that are the most proficient at what they do, the most violent at what they do.”

Are parents going to have peace of mind and sleep better knowing their children are safe; protected from easy access to illegal smokes by this legislation? Legal or illegal, there is no safe cigarette.

In spite of Big Tobacco’s knowledge of the health risks of its product, the industry for decades recruited the best scientists and doctors to manipulate scientific evidence, as well as promote a product that is addictive and destroys the quality of human life. In short, tobacco kills.

The U.S. Council for Tobacco Research (CTR) was supposedly an independent body. In 1992 Judge H. Lee Sarokin declared CTR to be a fraud. It was funded by tobacco companies to obfuscate and deflect the growing evidence against the industry.

Big Tobacco bombarded the public with adverts about the joys of smoking, and that there were no dangers in smoking cigarettes. In becoming a major sponsor of premier sporting and entertainment events, Big Tobacco ensured brand longevity, sponsored addiction, illness, and waxed rich.

Tax revenues on tobacco was such a boon to the State, governments purposely looked the other way health wise. (And it’s the same position being displayed when it comes to the salt, sugar and alcohol industries.)

Interestingly, after being licensed, regulated, and taxed by governments, and as if governments and Health Canada only recently were made aware of the dangers posed by tobacco, and its concealment by the tobacco industry, on September 29, 2009, Ontario filed a $50 billion suit against tobacco companies to recover costs of treating citizens with smoking-related illnesses since 1955.

On June 8, 2012, Quebec followed suit. The government announced it was launching a $60-billion lawsuit against 11 tobacco manufacturers. British Columbia and New Brunswick have also gone the class-action route against Big Tobacco.

Class-action suits against Big Tobacco in America by state governments in the 1990s resulted in them agreeing to pay almost $250-billion over 25 years.

This Contraband Tobacco Bill is not about organised crime and crime and punishment. It’s about securing revenues for Big Tobacco, and by extension federal and provincial governments.

Smoking was outlawed in Quebec bars and restaurants on May 31, 2006. Five months later, Jean-Pierre Roy, spokesperson for Loto-Quebec expressed concern. He stated that the provincial agency was expecting a $150-million drop in revenue, as the new anti-tobacco law keeps smokers away from video-lottery terminals (VLT) in bars. In 2005, video-lottery terminals generated $1.3 billion in revenue.

In April 2009, Mathieu St-Pierre, spokesperson for Quebec Revenue Minister Robert Dutil, stated that the trade in contraband cigarettes was depriving the province of an estimated $300 million a year in tax revenue.

Since illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine have no excise taxes, one can understand why the federal government has its eyes trained on tobacco smuggling. The irony is tobacco companies worldwide have been involved in the smuggling of their own cigarettes.

In 1994, the British government revealed that 1 in every 3 cigarettes smoked in Britain was a smuggled cigarette.

In July 2008, Imperial Tobacco Canada and Rothmans Benson & Hedges pled guilty to aiding and abetting in the smuggling of cigarettes and loose tobacco in the 1980s and 1990s. They agreed to fines and penalties totaling over $1.1billion.

In September 2008, Paul Finlayson, an ex-executive at Imasco, which once owned Imperial Tobacco, said: Imperial “Lubricated a system that defrauded Canadian governments of billions of dollars in unpaid taxes.” Also, the company earned $600-700 million a year during the smuggling era.

In 2008, Les Thompson, an ex-RJR Macdonald sales executive, related how the company set up a factory in Puerto Rico to manufacture Canadian brands for the contraband market. Also, most of RJR Macdonald’s profits during the early 1990s came from supplying smugglers.

In 2006, Thompson’s boss, ex-RJR Macdonald vice-president Stan Smith, pled guilty in Ontario, and was sentenced to eight months house arrest.

In April 2010, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and R.J. Reynolds pled guilty in the Ontario Court of Justice, to cigarette smuggling in the early 1990s. Fines levied against them totalled $325 million.

Now that Big Tobacco “appears” to be out of the organised-crime smuggling tobacco business, the government is going to clamp down on tobacco revenue interrupters with a team of 50 officers. Methinks the society is better served if those officers go to schools across Canada and speak on alcohol and tobacco.