Convenience store operators in Ontario are demanding that the provincial government get more involved in the fight against contraband tobacco products, the sale of which they say is killing their business. “Our members have been affected substantially by the sale of contraband tobacco,” Canadian Convenience Stores Association spokesman Peter Seemann said Thursday during a visit to the Erie Avenue Max Mart store.
Seemann was here in his role in the CCSA’s Window on Ontario Contraband Tour, a month-long campaign to 25 Ontario cities.
“You guys are no strangers to this, being neighbours of Six Nations,” he said.
Seemann noted that there are 94 active smoke shops on the reserve. By way of comparison, he said, there are 50 convenience stores and similar tobacco retailers in all of Brantford.
The implication is clear -not all tobacco sold on the reserve stays on the reserve, nor is it all sold to official residents.
Seemann railed against the apparent inequities that allow smoke shops to sell baggies of 200 “rollies” –equivalent to a carton’s worth of cigarettes -for $11, compared to the $80 price tag on a legal carton of cigarettes sold at an Ontario convenience store.
Seemann also noted that Ontario stores were required to hide their so-called “power walls” of cigarettes behind plain covers, while smoke shacks sell their products out in the open, with the bright colours of packaging in plain view.
And whereas convenience stores are compelled to see proof that a purchaser is over 19 years of age, Seemann said, there appears to be little discipline in this regard on smoke L&M shacks. He said the CCSA sent an underage buyer into smoke shops and found eight in 10 of them willingly sold cigarettes to this person.
He charged that profits earned on contraband tobacco sales go toward drug-running, gun-smuggling and “human trafficking” –“even as far as funding terrorism in the Middle East.”
The villain in this piece, as the CCSA sees it, is the Ontario government. While the federal and Quebec governments have enacted legislation, Seemann charged, this province has yet to come up with a plan of attack.
“Not only is the Ontario government doing next to nothing,” he said, “but it continually increases taxation and regulations on the legal market, which keep encouraging smokers to turn to contraband.”
Brant MPP Dave Levac, reached by phone after the tour stop, said his government is not doing “next to nothing” –a position he called “alarmist.”
He has talked up the problem to the ministers of Finance, Revenue, Health Promotion and Community Safety, he said, as well as Six Nations Chief Coun. Bill Montour, among others.
“I’ve talked to many people in order to deal with this complex international issue,” he added, including a Quebec-Ontario coalition that has a report coming.
“I reject that totally,” he said of the CCSA’s charges of Liberal inaction. “The simplistic view they’re taking is an unfortunate one.”
Levac said the CCSA should work on the issue with the government rather that engaging in finger-pointing.
“You don’t negotiate in the media,” he said, “and, unfortunately, because their patience is wearing thin, they’ve formed this organization to embarrass the government.”
While conversations continue between governments, however, smoke shacks continue to flourish and convenience store owners such as Paul Bains of Max Mart are feeling the pinch.
Bains said he has been in business seven years and his revenues have drop in that time to levels that may lead to him closing his shop. The past five of those years have seen significant increases in both legal cigarette taxes and contraband cigarette sales.
Levac urged patience. Every measure suggested is being considered, he said, even a law such as Quebec’s Bill 59 -but with seizure powers given to revenue agents instead of police.