Anti-smoking policies unintentionally increase cigarette black market

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Health officials in Ontario are realizing that the government’s anti-tobacco policies may actually be bolstering the cigarette black market since 43 percent of high school smokers use contraband cigarettes, according to a new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health published online in the journal Tobacco Control. Traditional tobacco control policies such as increased taxation and age restrictions are increasing the use of lower-priced contraband cigarettes, especially among teenagers since they “are more price sensitive,” says study researcher Davis Ip.

Members of Ontario’s provincial government, such as panel member Michael Perley, are worried that higher tobacco taxes, plain cigarette packaging and increased de-legitimization of the legal market will only act to further encourage young smokers to seek out cheaper contraband cigarettes on the black market while also making them harder to differentiate from legal smokes.

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross recalls his own experience with contraband cigarettes when he was on a trip to Ottawa last September to discuss harm reduction with Canadian MPs. “I remember learning that health officials collected and analyzed cigarette butts only to find that over half of those recovered were not brand name cigarettes — in other words, they were contraband.”

The problem is worse in areas near Indian reservations, adds Dr. Ross. “Reservations near the Ontario-New York border vigorously maintain their rights to their cigarette income, and they aggressively fight laws against untaxed cigarettes since they produce so many of them.”

It’s important to remember, however, that a burgeoning black market for contraband cigarettes is not synonymous with an overall increase in smoking rates. In fact, the forces leading to more contraband cigarettes may also reduce smoking rates. “It just means that more cigarettes smoked will be of the contraband ilk, not necessarily that more people are smoking,” warns Dr. Ross.

“Increases in taxes and disincentives can lead to other practices such as rolling your own cigarettes,” observes ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, noting the increasingly popular trend of the use of do-it-yourself cigarette rolling machines that circumvent the high cost of store-brand cigarettes. “Though Perley’s policies are good in that they aim to curb smoking rates, they will lead to an increased cigarette black market.”