21 to buy smokes?

Ontario should raise taxes on cigarettes, ban anyone under 21 from buying them and impose a levy on tobacco companies, a government-commissioned report is recommending.

The report suggests ways to reduce the percentage of Ontarians who smoke from 17 per cent to less than five per cent by 2035 — a target identified by the federal government.

"The magnitude of this epidemic is absolutely appalling," said smoking cessation expert and report co-chair Dr. Andrew Pipe. "The fact that 16,000 Ontarians will die every year as a consequence of the use of tobacco industry products is actually totally disconcerting to those of us in the health-care professions."

Ontario has the second lowest price for cigarettes in Canada — $102.40 for a carton of 200 — and it should be at least doubled by regularly increasing taxes, the report recommends. New revenue from those taxes should be reinvested into controlling tobacco, it says.

The province's most recent budget said tobacco tax rates would be increased by $10 per carton of 200 cigarettes over three years, starting with increasing the tax rate by one cent to 16.475 per cigarette this year.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the government is considering the report.

"There's a lot of work to do," he said. "The ministry obviously is reviewing the recommendations and I think their feasibility is part of that analysis."

Further increasing taxes on cigarettes would be "completely irresponsible and actually reckless," said Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs for Imperial Tobacco Canada.

It would drive more customers to contraband cigarettes, which already account for close to 40 per cent of the market, he said. The National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco has said one third of cigarettes purchased in Ontario are illegal.

The government has said it wants to keep the price of recreational marijuana low enough when it is legalized to ensure customers don't seek out the underground market, Gagnon noted, calling the approach to tobacco taxation hypocritical.

The report's authors urge a reduction in the number of retail outlets selling tobacco, which they say is currently about 10,000.

Zoning changes could ban the sale of cigarettes near schools, campuses and recreation centres, the report suggests.

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