BONOKOSKI: A top cop now fights contraband tobacco and its mobsters

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Rick Barnum retired as Deputy Commissioner of the OPP, and as the provincial commander in charge of investigations into organized crime.

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He was obviously a star at what he did.

At the end of March, the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco (NCACT), its name saying it all, scored a major coup when it announced that Barnum had been hired as its executive director.

“This organization has been fighting contraband tobacco and organized crime for over a decade and aligns well with my career in law enforcement where I helped to combat criminal gangs,” said Barnum.

“I will be pushing governments across Canada to take action against contraband tobacco and organized crime.

“It is well past time that we address this growing issue and support frontline officers in combatting illegal cigarettes,” he said.

Barnum was recently in B.C. doing some of that pushing.

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It’s where he said higher taxes on cigarettes in the province will push more smokers to buy tobacco on the black market and fund organized crime across the province.

While at the B.C. legislature in Victoria, Barnum said the province’s plan to increase tobacco taxes this summer will put more money in the hands of drug dealers and human traffickers.

“We are here today due to a growth in contraband tobacco in the province,” Barnum said. “Through my 30-year career with the Ontario Provincial Police, I know firsthand what criminal gangs can do to a community if they are allowed to establish themselves.”

The group says B.C.’s plan to raise cigarette taxes by 7% on July 1 will contribute to a 36% increase in tobacco taxes since 2018 when combined with other provincial and federal increases.

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It creates the perfect storm for committed smokers to seek out the contraband brands which have invaded the province.

And why not?

Here in Ontario, for example, a pack of legitimate cigarettes begins at $20 — some 75% of the sticker price being taxes.

A pack of contraband cigarettes can be purchased for as low as $2.

“British Columbia’s strategy to continue raising taxes on cigarettes without taking action against contraband tobacco is helping to fuel organized crime,” said Barnum.

“Illegal cigarettes are becoming more common in the province, and are helping to grow other illicit trades, such as illegal cannabis, cocaine, fentanyl, handguns, and even human trafficking.”

The difference in price between a legal 10-pack carton of cigarettes in B.C. and an illegal carton is more than $100, according to Barnum’s group.

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That’s bringing “millions of illegal cigarettes” into the province from criminal gangs in Ontario, Barnum said.

Not everyone agrees with the coalition’s assessment of the effects of taxes on cigarettes in B.C..

The Canadian Cancer Society says high tax rates on cigarettes helps discourage smokers from buying the product, particularly among youth.

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“The B.C. government deserves praise for increasing tobacco taxes as a crucial means to improve public health and reduce cancer,” said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the cancer society.

Barnum’s group, however, is also calling on the province to create a resolute contraband tobacco enforcement team to tackle the issue.

There is such a police unit in Ontario, and a much larger one in Quebec that plays hardball in its enforcement, sentencing, and with combined fines often in the millions — so much so that the percentage of contraband users is now in the mid single digits.

The only time Ontario made inroads in curbing contraband tobacco usage was back when Mike Harris was the Progressive Conservative premier and he purposely lowered the taxes on legitimate cigarettes.

But the days of ballsey politics are long gone.

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