Ontario failing on contraband tobacco

By MPP Bobbi Ann Brady

Tobacco is one of the most common illegally traded goods in the world. In Canada alone, about six billion contraband cigarettes are sold yearly. Sadly, Ontario is ground zero and has the second worst contraband tobacco problem in the Americas, with cigarette volumes on par with El Salvador.

Ontario is also Canada’s epicentre when it comes to illegal manufacturing. Roughly 33 per cent of all cigarettes sold across the province are unlawful, and it’s thought this amount doubles in Northern Ontario.

Contraband smokes are a problem for every Canadian. Legitimate businesses, like corner stores, are impacted, and governments lose significant tax revenue – Ontario alone loses out on over $750 million each year. Most unfortunate is that contraband tobacco is a threat to public safety because the illegal market is fueled by organized crime who are also in the business of drugs, guns, and human trafficking. 

Illegal products produced in Ontario are sold across Canada, with British Columbia being the province to most recently sound the alarm bells. I understand other provinces are not pleased with Ontario’s lackluster approach, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some provinces began invoicing us for their additional policing costs.

I’ve worked on the contraband tobacco file for over 24 years now, and despite more intelligence on the file, the problem has worsened in Ontario. On the other hand, Quebec passed legislation that saw success almost immediately. Within the first two years, the rate of contraband tobacco had been reduced to 12 per cent from 33. The ingredients to Quebec’s recipe:

  • A Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Team of over 50 officers.
  • Amendments to provincial law allow all police services to investigate contraband tobacco thoroughly.
  • The establishment of a program that funds ongoing investigations of illegal tobacco.

Recently in the Legislature, I asked the Minister of Finance why Ontario has yet to adopt the Quebec model that equips and assists provincial law enforcement agencies with the necessary tools and funding to combat illegal trade. Interesting to note is that Ontario signaled it would adopt the Quebec model in the 2019 Budget – it was allegedly pulled before print. I asked the Minister who or why the policy was pulled and we haven’t seen it in subsequent budgets, including the one delivered just a few weeks ago. By the way, my question went unanswered by the Minister of Finance’s Parliamentary Assistant, who was subbing that day for Minister of Finance Peter Bethlenfalvy.

More interesting to note is that in 2014 the federal government amended the Criminal Code of Canada – Bill C10 — to create a new offense of trafficking in contraband tobacco and to provide for minimum penalties of imprisonment for repeat offenders. When Doug Ford came to power in 2018, the Ministry of Finance changed the word “contraband” to “unregulated” in the Tobacco Tax Act. In the House, in my supplementary question, I asked the minister to explain that change when it makes it difficult for police and prosecutors to apply the law under such an ambiguous definition. Again, no answer.

These are essential questions, and they deserve answers. Quebec implemented three fundamental changes and made it easier for law enforcement. The recipe for success already exists. I suspect other provinces, tired of dealing with Ontario’s problem, will force this government to prioritize the contraband market. In the meantime, we all suffer.

Bobbi Ann Brady is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk