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Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.
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(Photo: ileohidalgo/Flickr)

(Photo: ileohidalgo/Flickr)

Tough to believe, given a middling smoking rate, but Canada has a real cigarette problem on its hands. And it runs deeper than stained teeth or bad lungs.

In a study published last month, Dr. Mesbah Sharaf, a health economics professor at the University of Alberta, revealed that 31 percent of Canadian smokers between grades nine and 12 use contraband tobacco at least once per week—frequently the cigarettes are smuggled in from the United States. Worse still, Sharaf and his team of researchers discovered a link between illegal tobacco and drug use.

It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where an impressionable kid buying a cigarette is then offered an addictive—and illegal—drug.

Using a national sample of 2,136 smokers, as well as data from the 2010-2011 Youth Smoking Survey, high schoolers were asked to assess, over a one-year period, their use of: amphetamines, cocaine, hallucinogens, heroin, MDMA, and ketamine. Sharaf and his researchers found that contraband smokers were three times more likely to abuse ketamine and amphetamine than non-contraband smokers (teen smokers who score their fix through, say, an older family member) and six times more likely to use heroin.

This issue is part of a larger problem for Canada: Spurred by high tobacco taxes, contraband cigarettes have soared in popularity, taking up about 30 percent of the overall market, according to Sharaf.

But in the case of these young students, the correlation with drug use could in part fall on the black market, as cigarette dealers might often peddle other drugs too. “Maybe through selling contraband tobacco, they are also advertising other drugs,” Sharaf says. “In this case, we can say that contraband tobacco may be a gateway into the use of elicit drugs.”

Sharaf couldn’t guarantee a direct association between contraband tobacco and drug use; his work, he explains, found a link, but not an explanation. But previous studies have said as much. And, given the potential criminal ring revolving around this cigarette market, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where an impressionable kid buying a cigarette is then offered an addictive—and illegal—drug.

Canada’s legal smoking age is 19 in most provinces, and 18 in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec, so that contraband market has obvious benefits to the tobacco-needy.

“There is no age restriction [on contraband cigarettes.] They are not subject to taxes,” Sharaf says. “They are just sold in a plastic bag.”

Sharaf calls on a collective response to this problem, urging the Canadian government, law enforcement, and the tobacco companies themselves to put forth a more intensive effort to cut off these illegal suppliers.