Contraband or counterfeit cigarettes that avoid government taxes and are often sold to teens are much more readily available in B.C. than Alberta, according to a new study.
Illegal smokes made up 15 per cent of the discarded butts sampled at sites across B.C., including schools and hospitals, compared to 10 per cent in Alberta.
The survey was commissioned by the Western Convenience Stores Association, which wants the province to crack down on the illegal sales.
WCSA president Andrew Klukas admits his members have a motive to get more customers in their stores, but insists it's in the public interest.
"To see this going on across the street from us, to see these products being sold without tax to kids, without any age testing or any controls, is extremely frustrating," Klukas said.
The rate of illegal tobacco found in butts discarded at B.C. schools was 15.5 per cent, the highest in western Canada.
Surrey's Tamanawis Secondary had the highest rate among B.C. schools – 19.7 per cent of discarded butts there were illicit smokes.
The rate was nearly 39 per cent outside the Passport Canada office in downtown Vancouver, nearly 32 per cent at UBC and about 25 per cent at Terrace's Mills Memorial Hospital as well as a federal government building in Surrey's Newton area.
The association argues high taxes and other government regulations have encouraged the underground tobacco business, where consumers can get cigarettes on the cheap.
"A lot of people are using these products and they simply don't understand it's not victimless," Klukas said.
Besides the estimated $120 million a year in lost government tax revenue, he said the trade helps fuel organized crime in B.C. and across the country.
Most of the unauthorized smokes sold in B.C. are produced on aboriginal reserves in Quebec or Ontario and are smuggled across the country, Klukas said.
He said B.C. could follow other provinces and let municipal police forces keep the proceeds of crime, giving them a financial incentive to tackle smuggled smokes.
Klukas also argues the province's finance ministry doesn't have enough staff pursuing fraud investigations.
"Get some more boots on the ground and it will pay for itself," he suggested.
The top 10 B.C. cities with the highest rates of illicit cigarettes found were: Vancouver at 28.7 %; Richmond at 21.2 %; Terrace at 19.8 %; Surrey at 17.6 %; Prince George and Prince Rupert, both at 14 %; Langford at 13.1 %; Chilliwack at 13 %; Kamloops at 12.2 %; Victoria at 11.6 %; and Port Coquitlam at 11.1 %.
Klukas said the WCSA is not lobbying government to reduce tobacco taxes, but argues they can't be increased further without first getting control of the problem.
Finance ministry spokesman Jamie Edwardsen said B.C. will be requiring all legal cigarettes be sold with a new Health Canada stamp that makes them easier to distinguish from unauthorized ones.
Provincial fraud investigators have an illegal tobacco tipline that accepts anonymous reports at 1-877-977-0858.