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Spectacular Tobacco Heists Catch The Attention of Organized Crime

HALIFAX, Canada (CP) -- The illegal trade in stolen and smuggled tobacco, once the work of lone, street-corner thugs, is a source of growing concern for police across the country now that organized crime is involved, a senior RCMP officer says.

After a series of brazen heists earlier this year, where cigarettes and tobacco were the only things stolen, police concluded organized gangs couldn't resist the quick profits reaped from selling a virtually untraceable product.

"The illicit profit to be made is what attracts organized crime," said Staff Sgt. Alain Giroux, who supervises the RCMP's contraband tobacco unit.

As well, stolen or smuggled tobacco is not as dangerous to keep around as illegal narcotics and the penalties for getting caught are not as severe.

"Once the wrappings are off, or they're out of the package, who's to say where the cigarettes came from," said a RCMP intelligence source, who asked not to be identified.

"It's almost untraceable."

Meanwhile, police say no particular group has cornered the black market.

But corner stores have become a favoured target -- so much so that the Progressive Alliance of Retailers, a Nova Scotia group that represents independent store owners in the province, is warning that cigarettes could soon become too dangerous to sell.

"I think the writing is on the wall," said spokesman Reg Loughead, whose group is based in Truro, N.S. "As the price increases and sales drop, there's much more risk to carrying them in your inventory."

There have been a number of major, sometimes spectacular, tobacco heists this year.

In early August, thieves in Edmonton made off with a semi-trailer loaded with cigarettes and tobacco worth $700,000.

In Halifax, armed robbers bound and gagged employees at a Costco outlet, then made off in a stolen van filled with cigarettes.

In April, $1.7 million in tobacco went missing from a truck in Mississauga, Ont., and another $4.2-million worth of tobacco was stolen in Langley, B.C., with the hijacking of a rig.

In recent years, governments across the country have raised tobacco taxes in a bid to balance their books and pay for soaring health-care costs.

Critics, such as the tobacco industry, complain that ever-increasing prices have resurrected a lucrative black market -- one that was largely snuffed out in the late 1990s with Ottawa's crackdown on cross-border smuggling.

Given the willingness of people to buy illicit tobacco, Giroux said it's easy to conclude that smokers are protesting high taxes.

"The general public perceives this as a victimless crime," he said. "To them, they get a good deal. The way they perceive it is: `I'm not hurting anybody; the only damage I'm doing is to the government.' "

But people are being hurt, both physically and financially, said another group that speaks for small business owners, including convenience stores.

"There has been concern by some of our retail members about the risk that accompanies having cigarettes in their stores," said Leann Hachey, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in Nova Scotia.

Since the beginning of the year, police statistics show there have been 180 corner store robberies in the province where only cigarettes were stolen.

In Toronto, a convenience store owner was stabbed to death in June during a robbery that saw mostly cigarettes stolen.

A separate holdup in July saw another clerk in the Davisville, Ont., area stabbed several times.

Hachey said the trend has forced some members in her province to double staff their stores, even in off-hours -- a financial burden for owners who traditionally operate on tight margins.

Aside from labour costs, Hachey also said there is a concern that insurance companies might begin to target stores that carry cigarettes for higher premiums.

Loughead said many in his organization feel helpless.

"It's pretty hard for the government to do a lot about it," he said.

"Taxes are probably 60 per cent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes and the government is not going to back off because they want their tax dollars. It's hard for me to say what they can do about it."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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