Mr. Speaker, we are looking at the issue of tobacco use, which is a scourge on our society. This issue looms over our society on many levels, and has been doing so for decades. Over the years, significant financial resources have been put into the fight against smoking.
Tobacco use is a fairly complicated issue, as is contraband tobacco. This is clearly a health issue. We know that smoking is bad for people's health. Over the years, we have come to realize that not only do smokers suffer serious consequences, but those around them can also suffer. Years of research led to those conclusions.
Just as an aside, it is very telling to look at how tobacco and its health effects were dealt with during studies in the 1960s and 1970s. A similar approach is being used now with respect to other products that can be harmful to humans. For example, when a manufacturer of a potentially harmful product states that there is no proof that the product is harmful, reference is often made to tobacco and the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s, tobacco manufacturers said that studies were inconclusive. To an extent, that experience shaped how we look at things.
This issue has health consequences. Tobacco, especially contraband tobacco, also has a significant economic impact, especially on aboriginal reserves. We know that criminals are involved in trafficking contraband tobacco, but we also see that on reserves, more and more ordinary people are working in tobacco plants. It does not matter to them if the plant is operating within the law or is hidden in the woods. These people are not criminals. They just want to earn a living. They may not give much thought to all the legal aspects surrounding the tobacco operation they are working for.
Aboriginal reserves are very involved in manufacturing tobacco products, whether legally or otherwise. The problem is that these reserves are becoming more and more dependent on selling tobacco and manufacturing tobacco products, which makes them somewhat vulnerable. It is obvious to most people here the House that in the long run, tobacco consumption will decline. If an aboriginal reserve becomes dependent on the tobacco industry, what will people there do when the industry collapses, if it comes to that?
There are health-related questions and an economic aspect to consider. There is also a financial aspect for the government because the tobacco industry, in general, generates significant tax revenues for the government.
When a black market expands, it eats into government revenues. According to some experts, the black market accounts for almost one-third of the Canadian tobacco market.
For example, there are reportedly 300 smoke shacks in Canada. At these shacks, which we sometimes see on the roadside in aboriginal reserves, cigarettes are sold to aboriginal peoples, who have the right to purchase them without paying taxes, and also to other people passing through the reserve to buy these products tax-free. Furthermore, there are approximately 50 illegal cigarette factories, and some of them are quite large.
There is also organized crime. Trafficking in contraband tobacco is an activity that attracts organized crime, which is involved in trafficking in many other goods, including drugs and illegal arms. It is a scourge on several accounts.
Another important aspect with regard to our federation, one of the most advanced in the world in terms of the fight against trafficking in contraband tobacco, is that this involves at least two levels of government. The federal government must work with the provinces, and especially with provincial police forces, to try to address this problem.
This brings us to Bill S-16. Let us talk a bit about what Bill S-16 would do.
First, it would bring the issue of contraband tobacco into the Criminal Code. A lot of people listening at home are probably surprised that selling contraband tobacco is not a Criminal Code offence at this time. People know that they should not be doing this and that there are legal consequences, but those consequences currently are not under the Criminal Code. They are under the Excise Act. There are fines under the Excise Act for engaging in the illegal sale of contraband tobacco.
Bill S-16 would add offences under the Criminal Code. It would add as offences selling, offering for sale, transporting, delivering, distributing or possessing for the purpose of sale a tobacco product or raw-leaf tobacco that is not packaged, unless it is stamped. These are the new offences that would be created under the Criminal Code.
The point is that it would allow the government to make it a more serious offence to engage in the sale of contraband tobacco, but it would also give prosecutors flexibility. A prosecutor would be able to decide whether to prosecute under the Excise Act, which would mean, I would imagine, that the burden of proof may not be as high, or whether to prosecute under the Criminal Code, which carries more severe offences. Therefore, the bill would provide more flexibility for prosecutors.
It would also empower all police forces to combat tobacco smuggling. Currently, only the RCMP can get involved under the Excise Act, but if the offence is under the Criminal Code, provincial and municipal police forces would be able to enforce the act. Of course, the bill would make consequential amendments to the definition of “attorney general” so that both the federal government and the provinces could prosecute offences through their Attorneys General.
The act would introduce minimum sentences for repeat offenders where there is a high volume of contraband tobacco involved. When we talk about a high volume, we mean, under Bill S-16, over 10,000 cigarettes or over 10 kilograms of other tobacco products.
These minimum sentences would apply only where prosecution was on indictment versus summary conviction. What is interesting is that the minimum sentence would only kick in on the second conviction. The sentence would be 90 days on a second conviction, 180 days on a third conviction and two years less a day on subsequent convictions. I imagine that this means that the time served would be not in a federal penitentiary but in a provincial jail. The minimum sentences would apply only when the first offence was under the Criminal Code, not under the Excise Act, for example.
The Liberal Party is generally reticent to support legislation that has minimum sentences, because experts have told us that these simply do not work in terms of making society safer. In this case, we are willing to consider the minimum sentence, because it would not apply on a first Criminal Code offence. However, we want to study the matter a little more closely in committee and bring in the experts to tell us what the impact of these minimum sentences would be.
We have to be careful that these minimum sentences catch the serious criminals and not, for example, a young aboriginal person who is perhaps not 100% aware of what he or she is doing and is acting as a mule, transporting cigarettes, maybe even without his or her knowledge. Obviously, we want to keep aboriginal youth out of jail. We do not want to see them go down that road if it can be avoided. The fact that the minimum sentence does not apply on the first offence is something that allows us to consider supporting the bill throughout the process and certainly allows us to vote for it to send it to committee.
We also want to study the fact that we are basically, in some ways, duplicating offences, because there are fines under the Excise Act. Are we just duplicating for the sake of a public relations effect, or will the bill really be effective? We can only tell once we bring in the experts.
I would also point out that there is an interesting contradiction in the bill, because usually, under the Criminal Code, if someone commits an offence and had committed a prior offence, but the prior offence was committed more than 10 years earlier—in other words, 10 years has elapsed between offences—generally, the court does not consider the first offence in its decision. This is not the case with Bill S-16. First offences, even if committed 10 years prior, would still enter into the consideration of the court's decision. We want to look at that, and we would want to know why the contradiction exists in this case.
The government sometimes prefers easy solutions or symbolic gestures that make the public believe that the government is acting decisively, even though the proposed solutions are sometimes ill-conceived and simplistic whereas the issues require more complex and nuanced responses.
We must do more than just rely on Bill S-16. For example, there are at least three things we must do in addition to introducing, debating and passing this bill.
First, an ongoing advertising campaign that is well funded by the federal government or other levels of government is required. I believe that the Conservative government has already made a commitment in that regard. The advertising campaign is needed to raise awareness because a fair number people stop by smoke shacks on reserves to buy cartons of tax-free cigarettes. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, the sale of these cigarettes is connected to organized crime in a number of ways.
If we tell most people that that is the case, they might think twice before buying tax-free cigarettes, even though it may be more expensive for them. I think that most people do not want to contribute to the problem of organized crime. If we explain to them that they are contributing to the rise of organized crime by buying contraband cigarettes, many people will not buy cigarettes at these sales outlets.
Second, we need to invest in enforcing the act. I know that the government announced that it was going to create a special unit within the RCMP to combat trafficking in contraband tobacco. I hope that an appropriate amount of long-term funding will be allocated to this.
There is also the problem of the border crossing between Massena and Cornwall. This border crossing, which was located on Cornwall Island, was moved to Cornwall, on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River. Right now, the government is considering moving the border crossing again, this time from Cornwall to Massena, which is on the American side of the river. The government is supposedly negotiating with the United States in this regard. Many observers and stakeholders, including the tobacco industry and the Government of Ontario, have reservations about moving this border crossing.
I am therefore asking the government to think carefully about what it is trying to accomplish by moving this border crossing and to leave it on the Canadian side of the river. The Government of Ontario and Minister Madeleine Meilleur in particular are asking the government not to move the border crossing.
This matter requires the co-operation of the federal and provincial governments. The government will also have to work with the provinces, particularly Ontario. Ontario is currently not monitoring farms that grow tobacco leaf, which opens the door to using raw materials for the production of illegal cigarettes and other tobacco products.
That being said, dear colleagues from the other parties, we are going to support this bill at second reading. I expect that we will be examining the issue in the fall, if Parliament is not prorogued. I hope that we will be able to ask the experts who come to testify in committee some fairly detailed questions.