A months-long investigation has led to the arrest of four people in what is now the largest contraband tobacco bust in British Columbia’s history.  

The estimated retail value of the cigarettes seized is about $11 million.

The investigation began on suspicion of an alleged drug and contraband network in August 2023 and spanned across multiple jurisdictions. 

The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, responsible for tackling gang-related crimes in the province, searched seven properties between Jan. 24 and 25 in Abbotsford, Langley, Surrey and Victoria, according to a press release from the unit on Tuesday.

The investigation led to the seizure of “32 firearms, a large quantity of ammunition, body armor, 10 pallets of contraband liquor, 35 pallets of contraband tobacco, 8 vehicles, 1 speedboat, half a kilogram of cocaine, and other items consistent with suspected drug trafficking,” reads the release. 

Four suspects have been arrested and all have been released pending the judicial process. 

“Organized Crime groups support their criminal enterprise in various ways including by dealing in illicit commodities,” said Sergeant Brenda Winpenny, Media Relations Officer for CFSEU-BC. 

“This investigation resulted in the largest one-time seizure of contraband cigarettes in B.C. and speaks to CFSEU-BC’s dedication to fulfilling its mandate to disrupt and support the prosecution of those gang-involved individuals who impact public safety and seek to make profits off of illegal commodities.”

Head of External Affairs for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. Kory McDonald praised the work of the CFSU-BC for their work on the record breaking seizure. 

“Firstly, on behalf of RBH, I applaud the work of the CFSU-BC and its partner agencies on this historic action against contraband tobacco,” said McDonald.

“Today’s seizure of cocaine, guns, ammunition, eight vehicles, drug paraphernalia and a speedboat is yet more evidence that contraband tobacco is not a victimless crime. Organized crime directly benefits from contraband with profits helping fund gun, drug and human trafficking. Criminals are not checking ID when selling contraband tobacco, making it more likely tobacco will fall in the hands of kids and youth.”

It’s estimated that the province of B.C. alone has lost as much as $591 million in tax revenue between 2019 and 2022 due to contraband tobacco sales, according to a report from Ernst and Young and the Convenience Industry Council of Canada. 

“Our government is taking action to fight gangs, organized crime, and the criminals who are making and trafficking deadly drugs and firearms,” B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth told CTV News

“This significant seizure, which includes drug manufacturing equipment, a speedboat, stolen vehicles, and assault rifles, is a result of multiple police agencies and the Province coordinating their efforts.”

The issue of contraband tobacco was also raised during Ontario’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs last month, where it’s estimated that anywhere between 39% to 50% of all cigarettes smoked in the province are contraband.

The CICC published a report last September that revealed sales of legal tobacco have been on a downward trend since 2019 in tandem with the skyrocketing illegal tobacco market. 

This influx is costing the federal government billions in lost taxes every year.

“Illicit cigarettes are a threat to both public finances and community safety. Industry, retailers, the federal and provincial governments across the country need to work together to reduce the demand for contraband tobacco and increase enforcement efforts. Only then will we be able to reduce organized crime and keep our communities safe,” said McDonald.