The Harper government has introduced legislation to set mandatory minimum prison sentences for trafficking contraband tobacco.

A new 50-officer RCMP anti-contraband force is also being created to target illegal tobacco sales.

The new bill, introduced Tuesday afternoon in the Senate, creates a new Criminal Code offence for trafficking in contraband tobacco. The maximum penalty for a first offence would be six months imprisonment for a summary conviction and five years in jail for an indictable offence. 

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq held a news conference on Parliament Hill Tuesday to discuss the federal government's strategy to combat the cross-border smuggling of illegal tobacco.

"Contraband tobacco fuels the growth of organized criminal networks, contributing to the increased availability of illegal drugs and guns in our communities," Toews said when asked by a reporter if contraband tobacco is any more dangerous than regular tobacco.

Repeat offenders would also receive mandatory minimum penalties when a "high volume" — defined as 10,000 cigarettes or 10 kg of other tobacco products — is involved in the crime.

The specified minimum jail times in the new bill are:

  • 90 days incarceration for a second conviction.
  • 180 days incarceration on a third conviction. 
  • Two years less a day for subsequent convictions. 

According to a government release, the goal for the new RCMP force is to have a "measurable impact" on reducing contraband tobacco and combating organized crime networks, in line with the RCMP's existing Contraband Tobacco Enforcement Strategy and other federal enforcement measures.

Asked why additional officers were needed when there is already a task force operating in the Akwasasne Reserve consisting of the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and the Canadian Border Services Agency, Toews said, "What we're doing is providing additional resources to the RCMP to get the job done, and we believe coupled with the legislation, that will make a positive impact."

After three or four questions, Toews refused to answer any more and abruptly left the news conference.

The 2011 Conservative election platform called contraband tobacco "a massive black-market industry" that "results in huge losses in revenue." It also said that by encouraging smoking, contraband "leads to higher health care costs and higher rates of smoking-related illness and death."

"Baggies of cheap, illegal tobacco can make it easier for children and teens to get cigarettes into their hands and start smoking, which obviously has a negative impact on their health," Aglukkaq said in a statement released Tuesday.

The Harper government created a task force on illegal cigarettes in 2008 and has reached joint agreements with the U.S. to crack down on smuggling across the shared border.

Earlier anti-contraband initiatives have been funded from the $20 million set aside from a lucrative July 2008 settlement with Imperial Tobacco and Rothmans Benson & Hedges, in which the tobacco companies admitted to aiding smuggling operations.