Playing politics with smokes

Alberta’s government recently announced it’s going to crack down on the illegal sale of tobacco on Indian reserves and other locations where cigarettes are sold without charging the required taxes.

Alberta’s government recently announced it’s going to crack down on the illegal sale of tobacco on Indian reserves and other locations where cigarettes are sold without charging the required taxes.

Apparently, in a province where gang-related shootings are becoming fairly common, the Progressive Conservatives think black market smokes are a huge problem.

So, earlier this week, they introduced legislation to allow police to seize vehicles and bank accounts connected with unauthorized tobacco sales.

They’ve done that after hiking the price of a carton of coffin nails by $3, which will boost the province’s annual tobacco revenues by $70 million, and make cigarette smuggling more attractive to crooks than ever.

This must be part of the zero-tolerance approach to crime promoted in Red Deer on Wednesday by Alberta Justice Minister Alison Redford.

The zero-tolerance approach seems to assume that all crimes are of equal importance and must therefore be enforced to the fullest extent of the law.

So does that mean police will put the same effort into fighting littering as violent crime?

Hopefully not!

Of course, a zero-tolerance approach in which even misdemeanors are given the gung-ho treatment makes no sense.

There are already many crimes that police don’t seem to care much about.

For instance, they don’t bother laying possession charges for small amounts of marijuana much anymore.

As well, if your home or vehicle is broken into, police may tell you: “Call your insurance company. We haven’t got the resources to deal with non-violent matters like that.”

In Ontario and Quebec, law-enforcement officials readily admit black markets smokes are regularly smuggled across Indian reserves with virtually no arrests.

Any attempt to impose the law, in such cases, tends to provoke allegations of racism.

Yet, here in Alberta, law enforcement is going to somehow accomplish that which has so far eluded the big brains in Central Canada?

Uh-huh. We’ll believe it when we see it.

On a related matter, earlier this week, a member of the Central Alberta Tobacco Reduction Action Coalition wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the Advocate publishing a feature story about electronic cigarettes becoming popular in the United States.

Apparently, some people think it’s best to keep the general public in the dark about the existence of alternatives to conventional tobacco.

Now, no one in his right mind would advocate the use of e cigs, or any smoking product for that matter, but electronic cigarettes do raise some interesting issues concerning taxes.

Since e cigs contain no tobacco, perhaps the government in the U.S. – and in Canada, if electronic cigarettes eventually become legal here — won’t be taxing them.

Already, in the U.S., e cigs are cheaper than tobacco. Whether they are safer than conventional smokes remains to be determined.

Tobacco is highly taxed in Alberta, whereas in Mexico a package of smokes costs as little as $2.

That doesn’t mean Mexico’s approach is better, but surely there has to be a limit to taxes on a legal product.

Is it really fair to keep raising tobacco taxes, over and over?

The province’s announcement that it is going to crack down on the illegal sale of tobacco will, no doubt, be sold to the public as a health-related effort, but it appears to be motivated mostly by a desire for more revenue.

Of course, illegal cigarettes kill people, but so do legal ones.

And although one can make the argument that expensive tobacco discourages smokers, especially youth, it seems it’s the government that’s really addicted (to tobacco revenues).

Alberta Conservatives hope to score political points by announcing plans to target the illegal sale of tobacco, but the plans will likely never amount to much more than a public relations exercise — just like in Ontario and Quebec.

You could say, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Lee Giles is an Advocate editor.

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