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Health groups want tobacco taxes to rise in Alberta

Higher taxes on cigarettes will deter young people from smoking, groups say

A coalition of health groups is calling on Alberta's NDP government to raise the tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack.

Campaign for a Smoke-Free Alberta says such an increase would help deter young people from lighting up.

Dan Holinda, executive director of the Canadian Cancer Society in Alberta, said cigarettes are already too affordable in the province and the new increase in the minimum wage will make it even easier for young people to buy tobacco.

``The minimum-wage increase should be coupled with a tobacco tax increase to ensure that youth smoking rates don't rise,'' he said.

``We are not opposed to the increase in the minimum wage, but a corresponding tobacco tax increase is needed to ensure that tobacco doesn't become even more affordable.''

The coalition estimates such a tax hike on cigarettes and other tobacco products could generate $180 million the government could use for wellness programs.

Alberta's minimum wage increased on Thursday to $11.20 an hour from $10.20. The government plans to raise the rate to $15 an hour by 2018.

Alberta government officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Canadian Youth Smoking, Tobacco and Drug Survey indicated there are an estimated 39,000 tobacco users in Grades 6 to 12 in Alberta. Alberta has the ninth-lowest tax rate on cigarettes in the provinces and territories.

Leigh Allard, president of the Lung Association of Alberta, said the province has fallen behind when it comes to tobacco taxes.

``The Notley government has a huge opportunity to significantly reduce youth smoking with the most powerful weapon available–a tobacco tax increase,'' she said.

The coalition said it wants Alberta to dedicate $20 million of any new tobacco tax revenue toward programs aimed at reducing youth smoking.

Last March, Alberta's former Progressive Conservative government raised the tax on a pack of 20 cigarettes by 50 cents to $4.50 a pack.

Imperial Tobacco Canada, which calls itself the market leader in tobacco sales, said it told the NDP government a few weeks ago that another tax increase in Alberta would be ineffective and encourage some smokers to buy illegal cigarettes.

``Imperial Tobacco does not believe a tax increase would reduce the overall smoking rates in Alberta,'' Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for the Montreal-based corporation, said Friday.

``What it will do is drive consumers to consider cheaper and illegal alternatives.''

Gagnon said that's already happened in Ontario and Quebec. He said there are about 50 illegal cigarette manufacturers in Canada and they are looking to expand into Alberta and Western Canada.

Les Hagen of the group Action on Smoking and Health said there is irrefutable evidence that tax increases reduce youth smoking. ``We would like to see a minimum $1 per pack increase on cigarettes to help reduce youth tobacco use,'' he said.

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