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Cigarettes become the latest contraband commodity

by Lisa Brown

Cpl. Gary White of the South Shore street squad, left, discusses illegal cigarettes with Bridgewater's Acting Deputy Chief John Collyer after officers seized 65,000 illegal cigarettes from a Bridgewater home in February.
 COUNTY - The region's hottest trend in contraband right now isn't crack cocaine or even ecstasy - it's cigarettes.

 Police admit even they are surprised by the number of illegal smokes they are seizing. Officers going into homes looking for drugs or stolen property are also finding cartons, sometimes boxes, of illegal cigarettes.

 "I would say about 80 per cent of the places we go into now have some form of these illegal cigarettes and people are selling them. It's a big money market," says Cpl. Gary White, who is in charge of the South Shore Integrated Street Crime Enforcement Unit.

 The cigarettes are packaged in bags or cartons of 200, with between 25 and 50 cartons in a case. According to information police are gathering, those smuggling the smokes into Nova Scotia are paying between $12 and $18 a carton. They then sell them for between $25 and $35, about a third of the price paid in stores for the legal product.

 "In some of our searches, there's been boxes and boxes. It seems to be the in thing now," Cpl. White says. "People are selling them and they're making a lot of money off them."

 Police intelligence indicates the illegal cigarettes are coming from Quebec. They are transported in trucks, vans and cars.

 Officers have made a number of high-profile seizures, both here and across the country. In February, police discovered 280 cases on Highway 104 near Springhill at a random vehicle check. The South Shore street squad seized 65,000 illegal cigarettes from a Bridgewater home on February 1.

 But police suspect the contraband they are finding is only the tip of the iceberg.

 "We're probably only getting a small portion of what's coming through," Cpl. White admits.

 The illegal smokes cause a number of concerns. One of the most obvious is that they are, in some cases, being sold to teens who are too young to buy cigarettes in stores.

 "The youth are buying it because they have access to it," the corporal says. "The people selling these cigarettes don't care who they're selling to."

 The cigarettes officers have found here to date have had white filters and been full-flavoured. Intelligence suggests that another menthol cigarette is emerging, with a white filter with a green stripe.

 Police know what to look for to determine which cigarettes are contraband - certain markings that are missing or different - but to the average person seeing someone smoking a cigarette any difference would likely be too subtle to notice.

 Many people conceal the illegal product by refilling real cigarette packages.

 "I talk to a lot of members, throughout not just Lunenburg and Queens counties, but throughout the province and the trend appears to be these illegal cigarettes are everywhere. It's unbelievable," Cpl. White says.

 "Some people have them for their personal use, but the majority of them are selling them to make money because there's big money in it."

 The penalties for those caught, however, are significant. Offenders typically face charges under the federal Excise Act and the provincial Revenue Act. They are assessed fines, as well as additional penalties which are based on formulas and the numbers of illegal cigarettes involved.

 Under the Revenue Act alone those fines range between $500 and $2,500 for a first offence. The court then adds the additional tax evasion penalty which equals three times the taxes which would have been paid in a usual retail environment.

 So, for example, someone caught with 20 bags or 4,000 illegal cigarettes would be assessed a $500 fine plus nearly $2,000 for the unpaid tax.

 "Sometimes the fines are bigger with having illegal cigarettes than with having drugs," Cpl. White says.

 Given the quantities of cigarettes seized here in recent months, some serious sanctions could be coming.

 "It's going to be interesting," Cpl. White says. "They're everywhere. That's the best way to describe it."

 The tobacco industry estimates that one in five cigarettes sold across the country is illegal. That's translating into huge tax losses for federal and provincial governments.

 Stephen Harper's Tories have recognized the growing problem, announcing a plan last month aimed at reducing the number of illegal cigarettes across the country. That includes more officers dedicated to anti-contraband units and a public awareness campaign to try to convince Canadians to stop buying illegal smokes.

posted on 06/24/08
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