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Smoke screen

A group representing convenience store owners complained last week that illegal cigarettes are cutting into their sales.

The Atlantic Convenience Stores Association issued a news release saying roughly 10 per cent of cigarettes sold in this province are contraband.

How do they know? They picked up butts at a variety of sites around the Avalon Peninsula and determined - by close inspection - which ones were legal and which weren’t.

It turns out Newfoundlanders are not the worst offenders. The association found the ratio of illegal butts averages more than 20 per cent in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, mainly because they’re closer to the main sources of contraband in Ontario and Quebec.

Here’s the thing, though.

How much sympathy do retailers expect to garner with this research?

You can’t blame anyone for making a living, but selling cigarettes - legally or illegally - is not the most noble cause in the world. Cigarettes kill, no matter where they come from.

At least association president Mike Hammoud doesn’t try to pretend it’s anything more than an issue of economics.

“Our concern is that it’s about 10 per cent, and that means that it’s a viable business for those who are distributing it, and to find that number and get it well below that threshold,” he told TC Media.

“The hope would be that government would look at implementing harsher rules and harsher fines, harsher (jail) time to deter people from doing it.”

One would hope, indeed.

It’s a hard sell. though. Because people are naturally inclined to go for a cheaper deal if they can get away with it. And when the product is one that’s dangerous to your health, it’s difficult to claim the moral high ground.

It’s like complaining about illegal online gambling while your customers slowly drain their bank accounts sitting at your video lotto terminals.

The main issue here is taxes. Everyone should pay them. It’s not fair for you to carry the burden if someone else is not chipping in his fair share. That applies to business as much as it does to personal income tax.

Even then, it’s still not a level playing field.

Retailers in Labrador West, for example, do get special treatment. On May 1, the government reinstated a rebate of nearly half the 23.5 cents it taxes every cigarette sold in Labrador border zones.

Why? To help curb the flow of smokers crossing the border to get cheaper butts in Quebec.

Convenience store owners deserve protection from illegal cigarette sales, just as they deserve protection from any criminal activity.

But let’s not forget the elephant in the room.

In an ideal world, no one should be selling cigarettes.

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