OKBA Launches Save Our Stores Campaign
By Angela Altass
The Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association (OKBA) recently launched the 2022 Save Our Stores campaign to educate and inform candidates running for all political parties in the June 2 provincial election about the problem of illegal tobacco trafficking.
“OKBA launched the original Save Our Stores campaign in 2018,” says Kenny Shim, president of the Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association. “At that time, our goal was to raise awareness of various issues that were impacting the livelihoods of convenience store operators, including a rapid increase in minimum wage, increases in electricity pricing, red tape with government, and lack of beer and wine sales at convenience stores. We spoke about many issues in that campaign. However, one issue that continues to negatively affect us in a very significant way is the continuation of illegal, unregulated contraband tobacco.”
OKBA will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year and Shim emphasizes that the problem of contraband tobacco is a very serious one for convenience stores in Ontario.
“At our peak, 15 years ago, we had over 2,700 independently owned stores across Ontario,” says Shim. “Today, sadly, only 900 member stores remain open and many of our members are barely hanging on. Contraband tobacco is a problem that, if allowed to continue without immediate and strong government action to fight it, will force more of our stores to close. We do not want this to happen and we believe that government can, and should, do more to address this problem.”
Shim says that he appreciates that the last two years, with the pandemic, have been very challenging for everyone, including the government.
“We appreciate that convenience stores have been allowed to remain open, recognized as an essential service,” says Shim. “During that time, we saw something very interesting and unexpected happen. During the initial lockdown, in May 2020, our members saw a significant increase in tobacco sales as well as an increase in business overall, because when customers came to our stores they purchased more than tobacco. Our customers were cut off from their normal supply for contraband tobacco due to the pandemic and, as a result, they came back into our stores and purchased legal tobacco, which is sold under strict government regulations. On average, tobacco and overall sales in our stores doubled during the pandemic, and in areas near reserves, like Barrie and Brant County, they experienced a 300 per cent increase in tobacco sales as well as other things that were sold along with the tobacco.”
Shim acknowledges that eradicating contraband tobacco sales will be difficult, if not impossible but he feels strongly that there are things that can be done to help small business owners, like independent convenience store owners, stay afloat.
“When we speak to our counterparts in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, they are all experiencing the same difficulties,” says Shim. “According to an Ernst & Young study last year, the sudden unanticipated increase in legal tobacco sales increased the taxes of gov-ernment across Canada by $50 million a month. Money needs to be put into law enforcement and agencies dedicated to fighting contraband. We encourage the Ontario government to modernize the Tobacco Tax Act so that all law enforcement agencies in Ontario can lay charges and make arrests associated with contraband tobacco. We know that next door in Quebec their government has put in a huge amount of money and a significant investment in law enforcement, which has reduced the amount of illegal tobacco sales in the streets.”
Shim says that OKBA members would welcome the opportunity to have conversations with candidates running in the provincial election.
“After a long winter and an even longer battle with COVID-19, we are hopeful for brighter days ahead,” says Shim. “We desperately need MPPs to understand the challenges we face and we hope they will make time to talk to our members. When it comes to contraband tobacco, the damage is real and our members are shrinking. Independent store owners work very hard. We are used to working six or seven days a week, 14 or 15 hours a day to provide convenience for our store customers regardless of what town or city we may be located in. Our members play by the rules and always follow the ever-changing regulations that our government asks us to enforce, whether it’s lottery sales, fireworks, tobacco products and even, in some cases, beverage alcohol. Our members take the responsibility of selling age-restricted material very seriously. It is our livelihood.”
Convenience store operators are not looking for any sort of special treatment or a government handout to help their businesses, states Shim.
“We simply want the law enforced and our Ontario government to do the right thing,” he says. “When we find people selling contraband right in front of our store window, we try to call the police, metro police or OPP. Whenever we call them, the time they show up is the next day. We want enforcement to be strong and fast so we can reduce contraband in Ontario. We want the government that is going to be elected to take more action. We don’t expect it to go down to zero but at least stop those people who are selling right in front of our stores. They’re doing it right in front of us and we can’t do anything about it.”
Convenience & Carwash Canada reached out to the offices of the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC), Liberal, New Democratic (NDP), and Green parties for their response to the Save Our Stores campaign. The only response received was a statement from the Liberal party which reads, in part:
“Small businesses are the heart of Ontario’s economy. The hardworking women and men in Ontario with an entrepreneurial spirit who open up small businesses to serve their clients and the broader community deserve to receive the utmost respect and support from their elected officials. We recognize that any illegal activity that hurts small business affects Ontario’s families through job losses and service cuts due to lost government revenue. The rise in illegal, contraband tobacco sales that we are noticing in Ontario lately is indeed concerning. Therefore, an Ontario Liberal government will collaborate with businesses, law enforcement agencies, com-munity groups and other stakeholders to stop any and all illegal, criminal activities to ensure that our hardworking entrepreneurs can continue to operate their businesses without disruption.”
The Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association met recently with Premier Doug Ford and Ontario’s finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy.
“We were told that the PC government allocated two million dollars to an OPP contraband tobacco task force,” says Shim. “When Save Our Stores started in 2018, just before the Ford government came in, Doug Ford visited some of our stores. We talked about contraband quite extensively with Premier Ford and the finance minister on March 28 at Queen’s Park and we’ve been emailing. The finance minister told us they are planning to do more but whether that happens remains to be seen.”
Shim and the OKBA will be watching closely to see what is revealed in the provincial budget.
“If they keep promising something and they don’t act on it, the only right we have is to vote,” he states.