Last week in this corner we talked with Mary (not her real name), a convenience store operator in St. Thomas about the impact of contraband tobacco sales on her shop and other outlets in the city.
She warned several neighbourhood variety stores have either closed or are teetering as the result of the sale of illegal cigarettes in St. Thomas and Elgin.
Here’s a far more sobering warning — cigarettes are now for sale in city schoolyards (both high school and elementary) that cost less than a pack of gum.
“There are kids selling bags of cigarettes at the high schools,” advises Mary. “I’ve seen kids smoking outside Scott Street Public School. Where are they getting those?”
In speaking to City Scope, Mary stresses there is no way she is selling tobacco products to underage smokers.
“I am under the thumb of the health unit. They send in mystery shoppers all the time that are kids, under age. But the kids are getting contraband cigarettes anyway. They’re cheaper and nobody’s checking age.”
This method of policing variety stores by Elgin-St. Thomas Public Health (and other health units across the province) is a particular sticking point for Dave Bryans, president of the Ontario Convenience Store Association.
His membership is not the problem, he insists.
“We have to stop closing our eyes to the issue,” he urges. “The local health board doesn’t bother with high school kids. They pick on convenience stores. I totally disagree with hiring a high school student to entrap a high school student. That is so wrong.”
He points to a two-year “butt study” begun by the Canadian Convenience Store Association in 2007, which involved the sweeping of cigarette butts outside 55 high schools in Ontario to determine how much contraband tobacco is being consumed by students.
The results are discouraging.
The study revealed 24 per cent of cigarette butts collected outside these schools were contraband. The number climbed to 26 per cent in 2008 and the findings of a third study (which included schools in the London area) will be released Wednesday in that city.
“I can tell you it’s grown to disproportionate levels, to the point some schools north of Toronto have 50 per cent of illegal cigarettes in the hands of young people,” advised Bryans.
How are we going to protect our youth in the future, he asks.
“We’ve asked health groups and governments to make it illegal for young people to possess, consume or purchase tobacco under the age of 19. No different than alcohol. You don’t see them standing outside school property drinking beer.”
The convenience store doesn’t sell cigarettes to anyone under 19, Bryan reiterates.
His association would like to see the government take additional steps to reduce smoking amongst youth.
In fact, the CCSA is requesting the government to prohibit the consumption of tobacco by minors, as it does for alcohol products.
Regardless of the many measures put in place to deter kids from smoking, the influx of massive amounts of inexpensive, easily accessible cigarettes has continued to derail those efforts, notes the association’s 2009 Time for Action status report.
“Illegal cigarettes can be purchased at the same cost as a packet of chewing gum, inevitably driving the increase in demand by youth
for contraband tobacco,” informs the report.
” While smoking rates among youth in Canada are at an all-time low of 15 per cent, that number has not continued to decline. Speculation is strong that increasing numbers of young people are taking up smoking with cheap, illegal cigarettes.”
The solution requires a multilevel approach, Bryans explains.
Baggies of contraband cigarettes are available to consumers for as little as $6 – $8 per 200 sticks. At this price point, using a single solution taxation approach, it is unlikely that anything short of a federal and provincial rollback to zero would be effective.
Major contraband seizures are being made on a weekly basis, however municipal police must be given the same enforcement powers as the RCMP, he stresses.
“Give the same enforcement powers to St. Thomas police to make an arrest because of tax avoidance,” Bryans urges.
“Right now it’s a federal issue and they need the RCMP.”
As Bryans warned in this space last week ( Read “Hiccups and coughing …” ), “If we don’t get our act together, we’re going to have huge, huge issues in the future. Let’s start somewhere and protect our youth.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Year in and year out, our studies conclude that those under 19, who are prohibited from purchasing cigarettes, are having no trouble getting their hands on cheap unregulated illegal cigarettes. The sad thing about this is all the government initiatives that have been developed to
reduce smoking such as taxes, health warnings, display bans, and mandatory ID checks are useless when you consider the accessibility of contraband in our communities.”
Dave Bryans, president of the Ontario and Canadian convenience store associations.
City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be e-mailed to: email@example.com.