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‘Both Sides of the Argument’? A critical review of existing evidence on the illicit trade in tobacco products in Canada
  1. Julia Smith,
  2. Sheryl Thompson,
  3. Kelley Lee
  1. Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Julia Smith, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada; jhs6{at}


Introduction The illicit trade in tobacco products (ITTP) is widely recognised as a substantial and complex problem in Canada. However, the independence of available data and quality of analyses remains unknown. Reliable and accurate data on the scale and causes of the problem are needed to inform effective policy responses.

Methods We searched the scholarly and grey literature using keywords related to ITTP in Canada. We identified 26 studies published in English since 2008 that present original research drawing on primary data. We analysed these studies for their independence from the tobacco industry, methodology, findings and gaps in knowledge.

Results The study finds 42% of the literature reviewed has links to the tobacco industry. These studies provide insufficient methodological detail, present higher estimates of the volume of ITTP and attribute the causes to higher rates of tobacco taxation. The classification of all indigenous tobacco sales as illicit, by both industry linked and independent studies, contributes to overestimates and serves the interests of transnational tobacco companies. There is need for independent and comprehensive data on the ITTP in Canada over time, across population groups and geographies.

Conclusion While there is evidence that the ITTP in Canada is a major and complex issue that requires effective tobacco control policies, there is a limited evidence base on which to develop such responses. This review finds industry-linked studies lack independence, employ biased methodologies and serve tobacco industry interests. Independent studies present more rigorous approaches, but primarily focus on youth and the province of Ontario.

  • illicit
  • contraband
  • tobacco Industry
  • Canada
  • policy
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  • Contributors JS conceptualised and led on the writing of the article. ST conducting research and contributed to drafts of the article. KL contributed to the conceptualisation and drafting of the article.

  • Funding This study was funded by US National Institutes for Health (grant number: 2R01CA091021-10A1) and by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (grant number:PJT-153064)

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

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