Big Tobacco is the devil, of course, producing a highly addictive and deadly product loaded with all sorts of nastiness, including arsenic and cancer-causing toxins that would be illegal if not confined to a legal product.
Hell, it damned near killed me a year ago with a stroke.
But Health Canada, the ministry bent on saving lives and limiting self-inflicted harm, rarely mentions the other major player in the cigarette game.
That’s the contraband tobacco industry where scores of cigarette manufacturers, safely ensconced on Mohawk reserves in Ontario and Quebec, churn out 10,000 cancer sticks a minute.
Canada prides itself on leading the global charge against tobacco. It pushes high taxes on cigarettes, a whopping 70% of the retail price being tax. It then throws in restrictions on where to buy cigarettes and where to smoke them, and bans all advertising.
The gist is clear: Make it as expensive, difficult, non-alluring and annoying as possible for people to smoke a product that will kill half of them.
Health Canada claims 37,000 Canadians meet their demise every year because of cigarettes and that it collectively costs taxpayers $4.4 billion in direct health-care expenses.
The public health nightmare caused by smoking has led to provinces collectively suing Big Tobacco for hundreds of billions to recover those costs.
Those lawsuits, however, have been going on for a decade, with lawyers on both sides naturally in no rush to see their cash bonanza end.
Not to be outdone, class action lawyers convinced smoking Quebecers that they did not know cigarettes were deadly and were recently awarded $14 billion, sending Big Tobacco into receivership.
Looming large over all of it is contraband tobacco.
According to a 2015 Health Canada report, in which it finally acknowledges contraband tobacco’s existence, more than 10 billion cigarettes were consumed that year, but up to four billion — roughly 40% — were contraband.
If Quebec’s consumption of contraband cigarettes in 2014, which hovered around 16%, was worked into the penalty system, for example, it could shave upward of $5.6 billion off Big Tobacco’s punishment.
Trouble is the federal and provincial governments have turned a blind eye to contraband because it pays to pretend it doesn’t exist.
It is much easier to lay everything on Big Tobacco and let the 150-plus organized crime outfits identified by the RCMP enhance their fortunes peddling cheap, illegal and tax-free smokes.
Going after that market would be very messy. It would mean raiding the offending reserves, which is a political no-no as well as dangerous.
An example: No authority has yet had the moxie to take down the scores of illegal cannabis shops on many Mohawk reserves, mainly because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ignored advice from consultants and regulators to have them properly incorporated.
It has been left again to the cops and military who are haunted by a history of ugly confrontations at Oka, Ipperwash and Caledonia.
This has them shackled.
Trudeau, if believable, has oft stated his primary and most important goal is Indigenous reconciliation.
Perhaps it’s time then for him to buy out the contraband players from the tobacco game, and literally save Canadian lives.
It would cost multibillions, of course, but Trudeau seems to have no problem ratcheting up the national debt.
If he put forward a transition plan for reserves to have sustainability and stop poisoning Canadians with their cigarettes, he could walk the walk.
Instead, he is forcing the plain-packaging of cigarettes to mask the problem, knowing illegal manufacturers will wisely follow suit.
In the meantime, people die, regulations to save them are avoided, criminals win and Big Tobacco pays.
It’s business as usual.