Nova Scotia is the place to be if you’re 17 and want smokes. According to a recent study by the Canadian Cancer Society, a third of retailers in Nova Scotia are willing to sell cigarettes to 17-year-olds, by far the worst record of any province (Alberta was the second biggest offender).
The study sent 15-, 16- and 17-year-old test shoppers into 5,502 gas stations, boutiques, and convenience and grocery stores across Canada to buy a pack of du Maurier King size cigarettes. About 95 per cent of retailers in Nova Scotia refused to sell tobacco to the 15- and 16-year-old shoppers, bringing the province’s total compliance rate close to the national average of 84.3 per cent. But just 65.9 per cent wouldn’t sell to 17-year-olds compared to the 79.5 per cent across Canada. “The overwhelming majority of smokers begin as teens or preteens,” says Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society. “If you have easy access to cigarettes it’s easy to start smoking.”
Nova Scotia employs test shoppers, has strict signage requirements, large fines for selling to minors, and programs to educate sellers—its regulations are very similar to the rest of Canada. But compliance numbers vary widely across the province. Sydney, N.S., actually had a 98.1 per cent compliance rate, whereas only 53.6 per cent of Halifax retailers wouldn’t sell to the 17-year-olds in the study. Steve Machat, Nova Scotia’s manager of tobacco control, says he doesn’t know why Halifax’s numbers are so poor. He calls the situation “inexcusable” and says the province is poring over its regulations to find out how to improve.
Cunningham thinks the handful of tobacco sellers in Sydney would be far easier to police than the hundreds in Halifax, where retailers probably “don’t perceive that they’ll get a fine.” Bob Gee, owner of Mader’s Tobacco, an 80-year-old landmark in Kentville, N.S., has his own theory. “There’s some people,” he says, “who just don’t care.”