Contraband Tobacco Users Susceptible to Drug Abuse

teen smoking a cigarette

The use of contraband cigarettes among young adults may be a reliable indicator of illicit drug use, according to a new study out of Canada. A team of researchers working at the University of Alberta evaluated data collected from 2,136 high school students in the 9th through 12th grades, using information gathered during the 2010-2011 Youth Smoking Survey conducted by Statistics Canada, a division of that country’s federal government. The major finding of the University of Alberta study was that teenagers who smoke contraband cigarettes are several times more likely to also be found using illicit drugs.

Cigarettes in Canada are heavily taxed, increasing the cost of a pack of smokes by around 75%, a measure which is meant in large part to curb the rates of nicotine use by making the habit cost prohibitive. Though this is likely effective to a degree, it also gives rise to a black market which is estimated at around $1.5 billion in value. Some people are making a lot of money by smuggling cigarettes across the border and around the country into provinces with higher cigarette tax rates, and many young adults in that country smoke these contraband cigarettes.

According to the University of Alberta study, 31% of high school aged teenagers in Canada use contraband cigarettes, a measure of just how popular bootlegged cigarettes are in that country as a way to avoid paying higher rates for a legal pack of smokes. Given that the percentage is that high, the news that contraband cigarette consumption is linked with higher risk of drug use is cause for real concern, and this concern is borne out by the numbers. In the 9th through 12th grades:

  • 31% of contraband cigarette smokers use cocaine, compared with 18% of those who use legal cigarettes
  • 45% of contraband cigarette smokers use MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly), compared with 33%
  • Amphetamine and ketamine use is nearly three times as common among contraband cigarette smokers
  • Heroin, recognized as being one of the most dangerous and highly addictive drug known, is used by 6 times as many Canadian teenagers who smoke contraband cigarettes compared with their peers

The University of Alberta Study is the first of its kind, examining this relationship between the use of contraband cigarettes and illicit drug use, and the results raise questions about how we can most effectively respond and address the factors involved. “If, as we believe this study shows, contraband cigarette use is associated with illicit drug use, then intensive effort needs to be made to avoid this – by both government and tobacco companies,” said Professor Mesbah Sharaf of the University of Alberta. “Adolescence is a critical period, and most unhealthy habits are developed at an early age.”

Contraband Cigarette Use as a Risk Factor for Drug Use

A possible explanation for the link between contraband cigarette use and illicit drugs is the fact that by purchasing bootlegged cigarettes, a young person is knowingly crossing a line and doing something against the law (even more so than simply smoking under the legal age), an act which helps to open the door to further illegal behaviors. Looking at the statistics, it is clear that drug use generally is common among teenagers who smoke cigarettes, but it is more common, sometimes dramatically more so, among those who use contraband cigarettes.

In response to the findings of the study, we are reminded of the fact that getting involved with drugs is often a slippery slope, a process in which a person may at first be doing something relatively innocuous, only to later slide into riskier and more harmful behaviors. It is vital to catch this type of situation early and to take preventative action through education to help the young person make the right choices now and in the future.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.