Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be able to participate in this debate about the terrible scourge of contraband tobacco.
In our ridings, people regularly approach us to support causes, and we frequently do just that. It sometimes amounts to moral support. Since coming here in 2004, although I have also worked for some federal members of Parliament since 1993, I have found that this moral support is just not enough. I always try to find a way to provide concrete assistance, to raise awareness about the problems that people in our ridings bring to our attention.
On the issue of contraband tobacco, I had the pleasure of meeting people from the Association des dépanneurs du Québec who were campaigning a few months ago about the scourge of contraband tobacco. Needless to say, they were representing people who sell cigarettes. As a non-smoker with a brother who smokes but who is trying to quit and a mother who has stopped smoking, I am well aware of the fact that everyone would probably like it better if it were impossible to sell cigarettes simply because everyone decided to stop smoking for health reasons.
I like to talk about my grandfather, a farmer by the name of André Bellavance. One day at the age of 94, in Causapscal, he told us that he had stopped smoking. We all found this very amusing because he had begun to smoke when he was 13. So we asked him why he had stopped smoking. Although he was a little hard of hearing, he eventually understood our question. He told us that it was for his own health and to set an example. We found it extraordinary that this proud man should all of a sudden decide that he would like to live a little longer. And in fact, although he is not yet 100 years old, he is getting close.
Getting back to the point, the association approached us because contraband tobacco was causing convenience store owners to lose a lot of money in Quebec, and no doubt just about everywhere in Canada. With a view to taking real action, I went and spent a few hours working in a convenience store with the owner to see what it was like and what people came to buy.
The issue, of course, was the price of cigarettes. People were complaining as much about that as about the price of gasoline. When people go to a convenience store, they do not often complain about the price of a newspaper or the price of a litre of milk. They complain about the price of gasoline and the price of cigarettes.
I am also fortunate to have my own regional community television program. I therefore invited experts to come and speak about the topic for 30 minutes and to use the small screen to raise awareness. Like all members of Parliament, I can send out householders, which I also use to inform the public about contraband tobacco. These are all concrete actions to inform people that we are very much aware of what is going on and that we can all do things to combat contraband tobacco.
That is not all, however. The government is also making efforts, as are all of the members of the opposition parties. In the case of Bill S-16, it has been decided to refer it to committee, and everyone is in full agreement. Yet I can see once again that the Minister of Justice included minimum sentences in his bill.
That is how the minister proceeds. He continually tells us that he is doing it for the victims and to fight criminals. However, since he was elected to the House and became the Minister of Justice—in fact I believe he has always been the Minister of Justice under the Conservative government—he has never been able to prove that minimum sentences help victims and reduce the crime rate. He has never provided any evidence or statistics in this regard.
As for the victims, I certainly cannot see how a minimum sentence can assist them in any way. He included this in the bill, although there is one interesting aspect, and that is that finally, for once, a government has thought to include sanctions for contraband tobacco in the Criminal Code.
Previously, I believe that this was simply a matter for customs and excise. The police could nevertheless lay charges and people did end up in prison because of contraband tobacco. However, it would be more logical for the Criminal Code to include sanctions for contraband tobacco. That is the good news.
I hope that a number of improvements will be made in committee, including those advocated for some time now by the Bloc Québécois concerning the possibility of doing what we must do as legislators. As I was saying earlier, the idea is to eradicate contraband tobacco or at least combat it more forcefully.
For example, stricter police and administrative measures are needed to put a stop to this contraband. For example, the traffickers’ vehicles should be seized because the black market thwarts the policy on high prices for tobacco. This option is not available to the police. People might well ask me what seizing the traffickers’ vehicles might accomplish. The answer is that if every time a trafficker was caught with cases of cigarettes in the back of his vehicle, and the vehicle were seized and he had to buy another one, this would be a significant deterrent.
Increasing the amount required to obtain a federal tobacco manufacturing licence would be another example. At the moment, a licence to open a tobacco factory costs $5,000. Just about anyone can come up with that much money to open a tobacco factory. Yet perfectly legal companies have recently closed their doors just about everywhere in Canada, laying off thousands of employees. This is unfortunate for the employees, but because fewer people are smoking and less harm is being caused to their health, it is good news.
For $5000, these new plants can manufacture cigarettes that very often end up on the contraband market and can be very harmful. We therefore suggest that the cost of these licences be much higher—in the millions of dollars—because it would appear that making cigarettes is profitable. The idea is to charge a much higher price to at least discourage those who want to open cigarette factories to sell all or some of their product on the black market.
There could also be a ban on supplying raw materials and cigarette-making equipment to unlicensed manufacturers. The government could also revoke the licences of those who fail to obey the laws and introduce an effective system for labelling and tracking cigarette packages to allow much closer monitoring of tobacco shipments.
Why not try to persuade the American government? We have good relations with our neighbour. It could take action against illegal manufacturers on the American side of the border. We are somewhat at the mercy of these manufacturers, who need only cross a river in a boat to deliver illegal tobacco for the contraband market in Quebec and Canada.
I also raised another problem a little earlier, when the subject came up, because we had to deal with a time allocation motion for this bill. I mentioned to the Minister of Justice that the Conservative government's policies were inconsistent. On the one hand, the government has been reducing the number of customs officers and people responsible for catching contraband of all kinds, including cigarettes. On the other hand, it claims that it wants to introduce measures to combat contraband cigarettes. This is inconsistent.
We need to increase the number of people who monitor what crosses our borders, including contraband cigarettes.
While I agree that Bill S-16 should go to committee, I would like the government to take into account the arguments that I have just put forward so that, for once, we end up with a more complete bill, even though there is no such thing as a perfect bill.
I would like the government to show the people and those who complain to us that we voted in favour of a bill which, in our view, will reduce and perhaps one day even eliminate contraband cigarettes.