Contraband tobacco 'out of control' in Ontario, convenience store lobby says

In southwestern Ontario, the largest increase by far was in Brantford, where contraband cigarettes accounted for half of the cigarettes smoked, up from 36 per cent last year, according to a study commissioned by convenience store owners.

Study suggests that in Hamilton, 31% of cigarettes smoked were contraband, up from 25% a year earlier

For a study commissioned by convenience store owners, researchers combed through more than 18,000 cigarette butts across Ontario to determine how many are contraband. (CBC)

More cigarettes smoked in Ontario this year are contraband than in the last four years, a study released Wednesday by a group of convenience store owners in the province suggests.

The study found especially large percentages of contraband cigarettes in northern Ontario. In the cities near Hamilton, the largest increase by far was in Brantford, where contraband cigarettes accounted for half of the cigarettes smoked, up from 36 per cent last year.

In Hamilton, 31 per cent of cigarettes smoked were contraband, up from 25 per cent a year earlier.

Across southwestern Ontario, contraband cigarettes rose to 33.9 per cent from 26 per cent in 2016 — the highest proportional increase in the four regions of the province studied.

The Ontario Convenience Store Association commissions the study every year, where researchers sweep a sample of about 100 butts from high-traffic locations like schools, hospitals, malls and casino in 23 cities. Then the group analyses whether the cigarette was contraband or was legally sold. 

The group's president, Dave Bryans, told CBC News he acknowledges the survey isn't scientific, but said it does get at the trend without relying on consumers, stores or distributors to be honest about whether their smokes are legal. And they've been doing the same study for 10 years, allowing for comparison from year to year.

Another study published earlier this year found that 32 per cent of people surveyed in Ontario reported buying contraband cigarettes, with the highest proportion in northern Ontario. 

Bryans was in Toronto to talk with provincial officials about his group's results on Tuesday.

"Everybody agreed but nobody has a solution," he said. "It's really gotten out of control and I don't think the government has any idea on how to fix it."

The association connects the growth in illegal cigarettes to taxes on legal cigarettes, organized crime and government inaction on prosecution.

Ontario has taken measures targeting smokers in the past, raising cigarette taxes by about $3 a carton in last year's provincial budget.

Bryans said that the difference between buying a pack of cigarettes legally for $14 or illegally for under $5 is too stark for many consumers.

He said the proximity to Six Nations of the Grand River reserve is one explanation for the proportion of contraband cigarettes being smoked in Brantford. 

"What are you going to do if you're an addicted smoker, a blue-collar worker?" he said.

"[The government has] been convinced that higher taxation will help people quit smoking," he said. "Not if you have a resource that you can't ignore."

Bryans said he'd like to see an education campaign about what it means when a consumer buys illegal cigarettes in terms of lost revenues to local businesses and governments.

And he'd also like to see the province invest in more officers for the Ontario Provincial Police's task force on contraband, created in 2016.

With files from CBC K-W, Canadian Press