OTTAWA — Most young Canadian smokers are “very familiar” with black-market cigarettes and many even support their sale. And they’re deeply skeptical of government assertions that contraband cigarettes are linked to organized crime.
So says research commissioned last year by the Canada Revenue Agency in advance of a planned $5-million advertising campaign designed to educate the public and raise awareness of the problem.
The agency hired the research firm Phase 5 to test-drive the proposed campaign with eight focus groups in Ontario and Quebec, made up of 64 smokers in their teens and early 20s.
What the researchers discovered suggests the government’s message will be a tough sell.
Among 16-to-24-year-old smokers, the level of awareness and knowledge of contraband cigarettes is “very high.” Most focus group participants could readily describe their taste, appearance and packaging and where to buy them.
It was clear, the researchers said, that the “vast majority” of participants had bought and smoked illegal cigarettes. They talked about buying them from school friends, co-workers, directly from native reserves and even under the counter from convenience stores.
Most didn’t consider black-market cigarettes to be particularly harmful, said the researchers. Though participants in the focus groups knew they were illegal, “they are so common that this is not a concern or something they think about.”
In fact, a majority didn’t oppose their sale.
Almost all said they buy contraband cigarettes because of their low cost. A carton of legal cigarettes with tax sells for between $70 and $106 in Canada. By contrast, a carton of black-market cigarettes can be had for $10 or less.
About 30 per cent of tobacco purchased in Canada is bought illegally, according to a 2009 report by the Task Force on Illicit Tobacco Products. In Ontario and Quebec, where the problem is most acute, as many as half of all cigarettes are illegal. An estimated 13 billion black-market cigarettes were bought in 2008, the task force said.
Last year, more than 356,000 cartons of illegal cigarettes were seized by police along the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Ontario — about 73.1 million cigarettes. Nationally, seizures have been running around one million cartons — 200 million cigarettes — annually for the past few years.
The illegal trade is costing governments hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue. But federal pronouncements have focused on the impact on public safety. The RCMP estimates that 175 organized crime groups were involved, to varying degrees, in the contraband tobacco trade in Canada last year.
When he announced plans for the ad campaign in May, Keith Ashfield, the minister of revenue, said it would “connect the dots between tobacco contraband and organized crime.”
But the young smokers in the focus groups weren’t buying it, the researchers reported.
The link to organized crime was unclear and “far-fetched,” participants said. “They simply did not understand how purchasing contraband cigarettes leads to things associated with organized crime such as prostitution, drugs and guns.”
They also “really struggled” with understanding how contraband cigarettes made their neighbourhoods unsafe — a key message of the advertising campaign.
“The faces of those involved in the sale of contraband cigarettes are at their school, in a nearby apartment building, or families on reserve,” the researchers said. “In some cases, they are family members or classmates or colleagues at work. Connecting these people with organized crime was a leap for most.”
Many wondered why the government was spending money and attention on illegal cigarettes when, in their view, there are other issues with much higher priority.
Participants were shown four proposed campaign themes, and asked for their reaction. There was no clear winner, but one theme, focusing on how contraband cigarettes breed violence, received a near-unanimous thumbs down.
They reacted with scorn to another theme, which asserted: “You might think it’s smart or cool to buy contraband cigarettes.” Some said that sounded paternalistic, like a parental lecture, while others said “ ‘cool’ is not good slang to use, particularly coming from the government of Canada.”
While the research findings aren’t statistically representative, they were apparently emphatic enough to make the CRA rethink its approach. Its advertising campaign, which was supposed to launch last fall, is still in the works.