Cheaper smokes sold on reserves
The StarPhoenix Thursday, August 21, 2003
Some of Saskatchewan's heaviest smokers continue to have access to cheap cigarettes while the provincial government receives bouquets for its efforts to discourage tobacco use.
More than 80 stores operating on Saskatchewan Indian reserves are selling tax-free smokes to First Nations people.
Several more retail outlets are preparing to open on reserves, where people afflicted by the worst health problems of any group in society can buy a pack of cigarettes for $6, compared to more than $11 in the city.
"It's perverted social policy and it's a huge hole in the (provincial tobacco control) legislation," Liberal MLA Jack Hillson said this week.
"It's something that serves no one's interests, certainly not young First Nations people and the general population. We're providing cheap cigarettes to young First Nations people and they've responded by smoking at double the national rate."
In March 2000, the provincial government opened the door to the sale of cheap tobacco on reserves when it stopped collecting fuel and tobacco taxes in First Nations communities. The NDP coalition took the action after dozens of First Nations sued the province, claiming the collection of the taxes was a violation of Section 87 of the federal Indian Act.
So far, 42 bands have filed claims against the province. The government has settled nine cases, paying out more than $5 million in out-of-court settlements. As part of the policy change, the province imposed the provincial sales tax on off-reserve purchases made by Indians.
In 2001, the government introduced the Tobacco Control Act which outlines where cigarettes could be sold, how they could be displayed, and restricted promotional material. The most controversial aspect of the act -- which has received international recognition -- has been the restrictions on the display of tobacco in places frequented by youths.
The government's effort to curtail smoking has also included huge tax increases. Last year, the tobacco tax was nearly doubled to 16 cents a cigarette, or $4 a pack, a health policy decision which also happened to raise millions of dollars for provincial coffers.
However, neither the provincial tax nor federal levies are applied on Indian reserves, which have twice the number of smokers compared to off-reserve communities and a smoking rate exceeding 70 per cent for youth between the ages of 20 to 24, according to a 1999 survey.
Hillson said some way must be found to end the tax holiday.
"We certainly need to sit down with the First Nations leadership. Some agreement has to be reached so the present situation is ended. It's damaging to the health of First Nation's people and it's costly to our health system."
Francis Thompson, a policy analyst with the Non-Smokers Rights Association, said high taxes are the most effective way to discourage smoking.
"Various studies in industrial countries have shown for every price increase of 10 per cent, consumption of cigarettes drops by four per cent. The rule of thumb is that the poorer the country, the more price sensitive people are."
Thompson said some First Nations in British Columbia have applied a tobacco tax on a trial basis. He said a tax on cigarettes would be a great revenue source for Indian governments dependent on the federal government for funding. However, he acknowledged imposing the tax is politically risky for band councils.
Gordon First Nation Chief Bryan McNabb, who is running for chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) in an election this fall, said there will be no tobacco tax on his reserve while he's in power.
"If young people are going to smoke, they are going to do it regardless of price," said McNabb, a 60-year-old who has smoked for 40 years.
"It's the same thing with alcohol. I don't think price is a barrier. Look at our drug problem. We have young people out there getting them regardless of price."
Ceal Tournier, executive director of Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) Health and Family Services Inc., said taxes aren't the only way to reduce tobacco use.
In 1993, the STC became the first tribal council in Saskatchewan to declare all its public buildings smoke-free. The tribal council also provides support for people interesting in enrolling in a smoking cessation program and runs recreation programs for youths which emphasize healthy lifestyles.
"The (smoking) rates are extraordinarily high," acknowledged Tournier.
"But in terms of cheap tobacco on reserves, there are other ways of combating the problem. One of those is doing what the cities of Ottawa and Victoria have done, which is declaring every public building smoke-free. That has more impact, I believe, than any kind of cheap tobacco would. You make it inconvenient for people."
Federal officials could not be reached for comment. Despite numerous interview requests, no one from the province would comment. FSIN vice-chief Lawrence Joseph, who is responsible for health-care issues at the federation, did not return a phone call.
© Copyright 2003 The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)