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BONOKOSKI: Will Health Canada’s newest war on Big Tobacco aid contraband?

A person smokes a cigarette in downtown Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2009. Health Canada says cigarette packs will have to be plain drab brown with standardized layouts and lettering, starting in November. The government says plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking, keeping them from getting lost amid colourful designs and branding.
A person smokes a cigarette in downtown Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2009. Health Canada says cigarette packs will have to be plain drab brown with standardized layouts and lettering, starting in November. The government says plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking, keeping them from getting lost amid colourful designs and branding.

The black market surrounding contraband cigarettes, already raking in millions a day without paying even a nickel in taxes, got a licence to print even more money Wednesday from the most unlikely accomplice the anti-smoking lobby could ever envision.

And that’s Health Canada.

Big Tobacco has repeatedly warned the Trudeau Liberals that the forced introduction of plain packaging — seen as dismantling the only tool left for brand advertising — will open the doors to the almost 50 unlicenced cigarette manufacturers in Ontario and western Quebec to start churning out a product that is virtually indistinguishable from a legitimate brand.

If the eye cannot tell the difference, it opens the door.

It’s bad enough now, as 40% of smokers in Ontario, by government estimates, are getting their cigarettes from the “smoke shacks” that dot every First Nation reserve in the province, and the percentage grows predictably higher in northern communities where unemployment is higher and economies are still struggling to recover from their downturns.

It’s primarily price point. Why pay upwards of $130 for a carton of 200 cigarettes bought legally at the corner store, for example, and where 70% of the sticker price is federal and provincial sin tax, when a carton of smokes on a reserve can be bought for around $40, tax-free, and a baggie of 200 loose cigarettes for as cheaply as $12 or less?

It’s a no-brainer for the cash-strapped, and risk-free unless you drive off the reserve with illicit cartons flying out the window as the OPP drives by.

During Wednesday’s conference call, Health Canada officials said Big Tobacco has until Nov. 9 to comply with the new plain-packaging legislation, and retail outlets until Feb. 7, 2020 to sell their existing inventory and then get on board with the plain-packaging regime.

It is the contention of Health Canada, and the vast anti-smoking contingent, that youth on the cusp of taking up smoking are swayed by the color and the razzle-dazzle of packaging that include logos and bevelled edges.

Duplicating the very basic plain pack, however, should be no problem for the illegal manufacturers because their packaging now is very close to the kind of packaging mandatory for Big Tobacco come November.

The re-tooling of their machinery, which can pump out upwards of 5,000 cigarettes a minute, will not be a major exercise should the contraband players do what Big Tobacco warned the government they would do.

According to Health Canada, more than four million — or 17% of the population — still smoke in Canada, and its stated goal is to drive the number of smokers down to less than 5% by 2035.

What’s a plain pack look like? Well, it’s pretty drab, with the only colour being akin to a diaper offering, but those big ugly warnings about the consequence of smoking remain just as prominent.

The brand? Small lettering, in gray, in a specific font and a specific size.

And no logo of any type. So, bon voyage to the sailor on the pack of Players. Farewell to the smiling Scottish woman wearing her Macdonald of Sleat tartan on the pack of Export As. And gone, too, is the family coat-of-arms on a pack of Rothmans, as well as the fancy imprint on du Maurier.

From deadline day onward, a smoke will just be a smoke.

markbonokoski@gmail.com

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