It has been known for some time that those who cannot legally buy cigarettes will find other sources. Youth tend to get most of their tobacco from family or friends, or proxy buyers. They know that most retailers will not sell to them. Now, we have yet another report from Ontario that contraband cigarettes are the number one source of cigarettes for youth. No surprise there. Not only does Ontario already have a strong black market but all the drivers of that market keep gaining strength thanks to anti-tobacco activism.
This report Illegal cigarettes lure high schoolers is somewhat misleadingly titled since it is certain anti-tobacco policies (regardless of whether they are considered right or wrong) that cause these consumers to seek other sources.
Contraband cigarettes, often sold in baggies and out of vans, account for 43 per cent of what daily smokers in high school are using, according to a new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
This illegal cigarette market is sabotaging traditional tobacco control policies, such as taxation and age restrictions. “Teenagers are more price sensitive,” said Davis Ip, a researcher for the study, which appears online in the journal Tobacco Control. “Since contraband isn’t taxed, the lower-priced cigarettes make it more likely teens will pick up the habit and increase consumption.”
In Ontario, retailers are not allowed to sell cigarettes to anyone younger than 19. Someone hawking illegal smokes is not likely to care about age.
Cracking down on contraband was among the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel made public last week. The provincial government had asked the panel to suggest a five-year tobacco control strategy.
“The most urgent (problem) is dealing with contraband,” said panel member Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco. “It’s the problem on the streets that’s hooking our kids and undermining everything else we do in tobacco control.”
Perley is worried (and seemingly confused) that his recommendations for higher tobacco taxes (which make contraband a rational consumer choice), plain packaging (which removes obvious differences between legitimate brands and contraband) and increased deligitimization of the legal market will be undermined by the existence of the black market. If he thought this through he would realize that the likely black market response serves as a very good indicator of how effective his proposals would be.
Anti-tobacco activists must be in a state trying to choose what they hate the most -the dastardly undermining black market or the legitimate tobacco industry which they have been successfully denormalizing. The more they succeed at painting the industry as essentially illegal (despite the obvious legal status) the more they cannot complain about the black market. Of course, it is legal sales that collect the taxes that keep the activists in business so they do have every reason to side with the tobacco companies.
Eliminating the black market (which would be a first in human history) could be calamitous for tobacco control. Though it would initially give them the upper hand, it is adult consumers denied this economic safety valve that might actually then stand up and act like citizens tend to when any other of their pleasures are threatened. The black market undermines political action and rebellion as much as it does the system.
-Paul L. Bergen