For the past two years, Oakville, Burlington and Milton residents have voiced concerns about the noticeable rise in gun-related crime in the GTA.
While the small but significant rise in gun violence in Toronto and surrounding cities is a complex and layered issue, one group is suggesting that more illegal guns could be recovered by police if the province cracks down the illegal cigarette trade.
This week, spokespeople for the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco (NCACT) will be visiting GTA municipalities such as Oakville, Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, northern Toronto, Markham, Scarborough, Pickering, Ajax, and Whitby to discuss how these communities are impacted by contraband tobacco and organized crime.
“A lot of people say that [buying and selling contraband cigarettes] is a victimless crime that’s cheating the taxman, but it’s cheating the taxpayers out of money that could be used for health and education and infrastructure,” says Gary Grant, a 39-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service and founder of Toronto Crime Stoppers.
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Grant also says that groups that sell contraband cigarettes often use the proceeds to fund operations that involve the sale of illegal drugs and firearms.
NCACT says the sale of contraband cigarettes is a problem across the country, but the epicentre of illegal tobacco is Ontario.
According to the RCMP, the province loses over $750 million in excise tax revenue which goes to fund the activities of more than 175 criminal gangs. The NCACT says these gangs might also be involved in money laundering schemes and the illegal gun and fentanyl trade.
“Contraband’s low price and easy availability also makes it a prime source of youth smoking. Contraband tobacco rates continue to be exponentially high in the province, with more than 1 in 3 cigarettes being contraband,” the organization said in a statement.
The NCACT says there are approximately 300 illegal smoke shacks across the country, and that illegal factories can produce up to 10,000 cigarettes a minute.
Grant says the trade, which is often viewed as relatively harmless, can lead to the proliferation of guns in local communities.
The group plans to meet with local MPPs to discuss how the province can tackle the illegal tobacco trade by increasing funding for police and dedicating more officers to investigate the illegal cigarette trade.
“It’s a dangerous enterprise. They’ll sell to kids, they don’t care about age restrictions. Two-hundred cigarettes can be sold at the cost of a movie ticket,” Grant says.
Grant says that most of the contraband cigarettes are manufactured on First Nations land, but that crime happens when the people who buy the products are not First Nations and bring the cigarettes into other areas.
“Some take cigarettes from illegal factories on First Nations lands and hand them off to gangs or other organized crime groups,” Grant says. “Thirty per cent of cigarettes purchased in Ontario are contraband. We’re not just talking about people who buy cigarettes on First Nations land. We’re taking about hardcore organized criminals, and once they get into someone’s community, it’s bad news,” he says.
Grant says NCACT is meeting with the province to push for the enforcement it was promised before the budget dropped in the spring.
“The province indicated it would introduce funding for contraband cigarettes in the budget, and it wasn’t in the budget. They did indicate they would take strong steps about contraband. We were shocked when it didn’t appear in the budget.”
Grant says the Ontario government could model its approach after the one taken by the Quebec government.
“Quebec used to have the same issue. The government passed legislation that allowed police to investigate contraband tobacco and they allowed more officers to investigate. They’ve seen a reduction of over 50 per cent. For every dollar they spend on enforcement, they get 11 or 12 dollars back in revenue,” he says.
Grant says his organization is asking the province for dedicated police staffing and funding to tackle this problem in particular, adding that only the RCMP and Ministry of Finance officials have the power to investigate contraband tobacco right now.
Grant says that giving all Ontario police services better tools to crack down on the illegal cigarette trade could lead to the seizure of more hard drugs and weapons.
“When the arrests take place, they frequently find guns in the mix, along with laundered money. It stands to reason that if we arrest more people, we’ll find more guns.”
Grant is optimistic that the Ontario government is listening, but is disappointed more isn’t being done already.
“The province was very receptive and we know the staff and people we worked with were on board with making these changes. We’re puzzled and disappointed that it didn’t make it into the budget. Hopefully they’ll move forward this time.”