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We bought illegal cigarettes in the Downtown Eastside so you don't have to

Yesterday the B.C. Government issued a press release outlining how 1.5 million grams of tobacco have been seized in the province during the first quarter of this year.
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Yesterday the B.C. Government issued a press release outlining how 1.5 million grams of tobacco have been seized in the province during the first quarter of this year.

On the heels of that news we decided to see how difficult it would be to buy contraband cigarettes on the street in Vancouver, then compare that product with the smokes you can buy legally in stores.

While I'm pleased that we were able to obtain some for the sake of this article, I wouldn't say I'm happy with how easy it was.

 Contraband cigarettes purchased in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Photo Bob KronbauerContraband cigarettes purchased in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Photo Bob Kronbauer

My mission to obtain illegal cigarettes began at 3:30pm on a Tuesday, when I parked my car on Cordova at Carrall. I then walked a block South to Pigeon Park on the corner of Hastings.

Standing at the edge of the park looking around, I was quickly approached by an elderly Chinese woman who had a duffel bag open. It was stuffed with packs of smokes.

"Four dollars" she said, before I had the chance to ask her how much they were.

She allowed me to dig around in her bag, so that I could pick out a few different varieties.

I handed her cash, then asked where she gets the cigarettes from.

There was a language barrier as she seemed to not fully understand my question, but what she uttered in response was "Lou."

"Someone named Lou sells these to you and you resell them?" I enquired.

She answered "Lou" again, nodding, and I decided I should probably not ask any more questions as I already fear for my personal safety down there. I didn't feel like getting murdered for looking like a cop plying someone selling illegal product for their source.

 A contraband cigarette being smoked in Vancouver. Photo Bob KronbauerA contraband cigarette being smoked in Vancouver. Photo Bob Kronbauer

Since I'm not a smoker myself (I quit in 2007 after ten years of puffing a pack a day) I recruited three lung cancer enthusiasts I know to sample the cigarettes and offer their honest feedback.

The consensus among them was that the product, while "perfectly smokeable", was inferior.

Among the comments were that:

- They're poorly rolled and go out easily

- They're tasteless

- They have a clove aftertaste

Some direct quotes from my anonymous smokers:

- "These are gross"

- "They smell like burning foolscap paper"

- "This tastes like a shitty, low cost smoke you'd get on the black market"

None of the three smokers said they would ever buy the cigarettes, even at the insanely low price point of four dollars a pack.

 Different brands of contraband cigarettes, originally offered for sale on First Nations reservations in Canada. Photo Bob KronbauerDifferent brands of contraband cigarettes, originally offered for sale on First Nations reservations in Canada. Photo Bob Kronbauer

There are two main varieties of contraband cigarettes you'll find in the Downtown Eastside. The ones you see here - which the labeling says are made on First Nations reservations, and can't be bought in stores - and straight up stolen, "legal" smokes that people have come upon one way or another (by stealing them).

I wouldn't advise you to buy either of them, and here are a few reasons why:

1. It's a crime to purchase, sell or possess illegal tobacco

If you buy illegal cigarettes there's a chance you'll get arrested. A very slim chance as they're flagrantly being sold and we never hear of enforcement (the VPD has yet to answer my question to them about how many arrests they've made for buying or selling smokes), but you're committing a crime by buying them.

2. Proceeds of your purchase will likely go towards organized crime

The Government of Canada set up the Task Force on Illicit Tobacco Products in 2008, as "the illicit tobacco market continues to attract organized crime, undermining Canadians' expectations of safe communities and economic integrity." The people selling them on Hastings may not be involved in organized crime, but the product had to get to them somehow.

3. You're screwing us all

The B.C. Government taxes 20-packs of cigarettes at a rate of $5.50, and the average pack costs around $15.50. The tax rate I paid on my $4.00 packs of contraband smokes was $0. That means healthcare, infrastructure, education, etc (for you, your friends, your family, everyone), are at risk of declining.

4. You shouldn't visit the Downtown Eastside if you don't have to

It's an absolute gong show in the Downtown Eastside right now. So much so that the VPD is now concerned for the safety of cops working in the neighbourhood. I wouldn't advise anybody to go there for any reason whatsoever, never mind to buy illegal cigarettes.

If you want to report the illegal sale and distribution of tobacco, call the B.C. Government's tip line at 1-877-977-0850, through Crime Stoppers at bccrimestoppers.com, or email IUnit@gov.bc.ca.