Monday, April 20, 2009

Appeal to smokers; don’t buy contraband

Canadian Revenue Minister, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, announced last week that the Canadian Revenue Agency will launch an advertising campaign to combat the smuggling and sale of contraband tobacco. Blackburn plans to “tell smokers what impact smuggling has had on society."

The advertising campaign is expected to focus on the health risks (what else) of smoking contraband tobacco products. Apparently, it has come to the attention of the federal government that the manufacturers of contraband smokes do not exercise the same level of quality control as Imperial or Rothman’s. They’re concerned that Canadians who smoke contraband may be taking needless risks with their health by using a tobacco product which may not have been stored properly or may have been contaminated with foreign material.

How thoughtful of Mr. Blackburn and his federal colleagues; to be so concerned about the health and well-being of the humble smoker. But, most smokers will look at this new propagan . . . er, advertising campaign with a measure of skepticism. And who could blame them?

First, government launched an initiative to save us from the clutches of the evil tobacco companies. To do that, they followed the advice of the anti-smoker cult and raised tobacco taxes to an obscene level; making them unaffordable to many Canadians. Now, they’re going to try and convince smokers that they should buy only over-priced, government approved tobacco; for their own good, of course.

It will be a hard sell, because it’s not really about public health any more. It’s about the money.

Think about it. Try insinuating a little bit of common sense into the equation. Governments at the federal and provincial level are losing vast amounts of revenue to sales of contraband. A black market they themselves created with misguided public policy.

And it’s not just the government losing money. Tobacco companies complain about a corresponding decrease in the sales of legal tobacco products. Corner stores, reliant on sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products have also seen declines in income. Tobacco farmers have already been devastated; production facilities have moved offshore. Bars and hospitality venues are losing income as smokers do more entertaining at home to avoid smoking bans.

Have our already short-sighted politicians been wearing blinders? How could they ignore the potential adverse consequences of their heavy handed approach to tobacco control? Were they so hell bent on persecuting smokers that they couldn’t see the social and economic impact of their draconian bans and obscene levels of taxation?

You’ll no doubt see and hear about these issues in the pending ad campaign from Revenue Canada. But, there will be no admission from government that they are in large measure responsible for the situation with an unnecessary, misguided war on smokers.

Instead, smokers will be blamed for failing to comply with the outrageous dictates of governments which have chosen to isolate smokers and designate them as second class citizens. The trade in contraband, they’ll tell you, is controlled by criminals. And, those smokers who support the illicit trade by buying untaxed tobacco are, by extension, also criminals.

In Quebec, Bloc Québécois public safety critic, Serge Ménard, is already demanding that smokers be targeted for their “crimes”. Ménard claims contraband can be controlled by simply arresting smokers and seizing their vehicles as they leave First Nations territory with untaxed tobacco.

Of course, that will merely worsen the situation, straining relations with Canada’s First Nations and attracting an even more ruthless criminal element, not to mention the political fallout from turning otherwise law abiding citizens into criminals.

Ménard’s suggestion is not a reasoned response. New methods of distribution will develop quickly. As long as the market remains so lucrative, contraband activity will continue to escalate to the point where it is impossible to control.

Hypocritical governments, while proclaiming smoking a health risk on one hand, rake in billions in tax revenue with the other. If they really want to resolve the contraband issue, they have to do away with the hypocrisy and bring a little reason and common sense into tobacco control legislation.

But, they won’t be able to do anything concrete while their singular source of information is the anti-smoker
lobby. Maybe they should invite smokers into the dialogue. After all, we are the biggest stakeholders.

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