HALIFAX – The Atlantic Convenience Stores Association, ACSA, is calling on the Nova Scotian government to impose heftier fines and increase enforcement around illegal tobacco, saying the trade is hurting convenience store owners.
El-Rabahi has owned Hydrostone Groceteria in the North End for approximately 12 years. He said sales, both tobacco and general, have been going down the last few years.
“You hear from the customers [illegal cigarettes] are easy to access, cheap. [It's hurting] my business,” he said.
While El-Rabahi admits he can’t pinpoint illegal cigarettes as the sole reason his sales have dropped, he still thinks the government needs to do something about it.
“Recognize our business is hurting because [there are] illegal products on the street,” he said.
ACSA President Mike Hammoud cites a new study, commissioned by the association, that finds the presence of illegal tobacco in Nova Scotia jumped 40 per cent from last year, from 14.6 per cent to 20.4 per cent.
The findings come from a “butt study” where a research firm collected and analyzed cigarette butts from 27 different locations across the province. More than 4,000 butts were examined, and Hammoud said one in five were found to be illegal.
Hammoud said those findings eventually trickle back to local convenience stores.
“Convenience store retailers don’t make a lot of money off tobacco so it’s not about that. It’s about customer generation. it’s about having the ability to have foot traffic into your door,” he said.
“When you lose that customer based on them going elsewhere to buy the product, then you lose that customer based on your milk sales, your bread sales and everything else they would have been coming in to buy.”
Hammoud is asking the province to impose fines, in the millions, to those involved in the illegal tobacco trade and to increase enforcement of the industry.
“If we’re losing customers because of an illegal act that’s happening out there on an unlevel playing surface, we believe that’s not fair. It shouldn’t happen because if we end up going out of business, the community loses what we feel to be a staple in the community.”
Service Nova Scotia, which oversees fines and the enforcement of illegal tobacco, said its numbers only indicate a five per cent increase of illegal tobacco in the province since last year.
“We have made progress in Nova Scotia, which is largely due to the implementation of a comprehensive compliance strategy and stiffer penalties introduced in 2010 for those caught in the illegal tobacco trade,” said spokesperson Tracy Barron.
Barron said the department will examine the ACSA report to see if there is any way to improve the province’s enforcement strategy.
Meanwhile, customers have mixed opinions on whether any changes in legislation would make a difference.
“I think we should have something in place to protect the younger generation to be sure it’s not easily available for them,” said Steve Hardman.
However, George MacDonald thinks otherwise; MacDonald said he buys illegal cigarettes because they are cheaper, estimating he saves $70 per carton.
“Stronger legislation means the price of everything goes up again as usual. [Illegal cigarettes] are not the healthiest cigarettes, let’s put it that way. But they are so much cheaper,” MacDonald said.
“I don’t know if there’s a cure to be honest with you.”