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Tobacco War Will Backfire

April 4, 2000
By Greg Lockert -- Winnipeg Sun

It's a drug war disguised as a public health campaign. And, like all the other drug wars being fought in North America, it's an effort doomed to defeat.

Let's face it, governments will never banish tobacco smoking. But they refuse to quit trying. And in the process, politicians become dupes in the growth of spinoff crime. They also create unenforceable laws which violate civil and property rights and deflect public attention from more pressing matters.

There are better ways to convince people not to smoke. The best is through education.

The worst is through taxation.

Cigarettes are inexpensive to produce, and would be cheap as borscht if not for provincial and federal taxes tacked on to the price. This is not to say tobacco taxes should be eliminated -- far from it. But they should be significantly reduced in order to prevent crime.

As it now stands, a pack of smokes is expensive enough that crooks can get rich smuggling them across provincial or national borders. It's putting millions into the pockets of organized crime, as well as spawning a rash of thefts locally.

In a recent incident, a cigarette smuggler was caught near West Hawk Lake with 5,250 cartons of cigarettes following a tip from the Ontario Provincial Police. The Manitoba Taxation special investigators unit, which seized the illicit smokes, believes they were being trucked to B.C. from Ontario. A $25 carton from Ontario fetches about $45 in B.C. Not a bad markup.

A few weeks back, someone broke into Federated Co-operative on King Edward Street and ripped off some 2,500 cartons of cigarettes worth about $100,000. Police suspect the culprit had inside information because the alarm didn't go off.

Meanwhile, the Manitoba government is mulling over banning smoking in all public buildings, and the city of Winnipeg is looking at forbidding the use of the weed in bars and restaurants. The idea, aside from promoting non-smokers' rights, is to turn smokers into more of a social pariah than they already are. Maybe that will convince them to kick the habit. It won't, of course.

Interestingly, B.C., a land of self-righteous do-gooders if there ever was one, bombed in its attempt to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the ban enacted by the Workers Compensation Board was done so without proper consultation.

Tobacco may be powerfully addictive, but talk to any smoker, or even ex-smoker, and you'll learn that puffing can be mighty pleasurable. Yes, it can kill you, but tobacco is a slow killer, and smokers are rarely professionally or socially handicapped by their habit. Unlike alcohol abusers, they can live decent lives and enjoy untarnished reputations.

Taxing the hell out of tobacco won't make the average nicotine addict quit, nor will it discourage many youngsters from taking up the habit. But it will create a bunch of rich criminals who profit from the smuggling and illegal sale of contraband cigarettes. And that forces police and justice officials to divert manpower away from fighting more serious crimes.

While most Canadians do want to discourage kids from smoking, a majority of taxpayers do not want their governments to pump dollars into fighting the smuggling and sale of an otherwise legal product.

As for banning smoking in public places, it will either create tons of new jobs for anti-smoking inspectors or simply take overworked officers away from their current duties. One step forward, three steps back. It's ludicrous.

Discouraging tobacco use is a worthy goal and there's only one way to do it: Convince youngsters to stay away from cigarettes through education.

That is money well-spent.