The proliferation of tax-free tobacco products on reserves will be addressed in next week’s provincial budget, Premier Brad Wall said
in a speech Wednesday.
In his “state of the province” address to the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce at TCU Place, Wall said the province needs to take some steps to reduce tobacco use and cited a report saying one of the biggest obstacles to that has been the lack of taxation on tobacco products sold on First Nations.
“Smoking remains one of the most harmful and costly health issues. The financial cost is great; the human cost is greater,” said Wall. “And the problem continues to be greatest among our First Nations people.”
Wall referred to Statistics Canada surveys from 2007-08 that showed the rate of smoking to be twice as high among the aboriginal population (45.3 per cent) in Saskatchewan compared to the non-aboriginal population (23.3 per cent).
He also referred to the Saskatchewan Coalition for Tobacco Reduction’s 2008 report on reducing tobacco use, which said one of the most effective strategies is an increase in price, but the impact of Saskatchewan’s high taxes on tobacco is limited by the lack of taxation on First Nations.
Talking with reporters following his speech, Wall hinted the personal tax-free exemption on-reserve, which is currently three cartons of cigarettes per week, may decrease. He said the government will also be talking with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) about collecting taxes on First Nations’ behalf.
He acknowledged there are treaty rights on the personal use of tobacco, so FSIN involvement would be critical.
“Together in partnership with First Nations, maybe the objective should be we don’t have tax-free tobacco,” he said. “That would have to be a decision First Nations are a part of, because it’s a treaty right.”
A spokesperson for the FSIN was not available for comment Wednesday.
Reducing the amount of tax-free tobacco would also benefit the health of all Saskatchewan residents — not just First Nations — Wall noted, since much of the tax-exempt cigarettes are consumed illegally by non-aboriginals.
Wall dropped other hints during his speech about what to expect in the budget, including repeating the Saskatchewan Party government’s promise of a balanced budget. He referred to NDP Opposition accusations Tuesday that the government is planning to cut civil service positions by four per cent each year for the next four years, telling the audience it’s time for the public sector to follow the lead of the private sector.
“There are those who say, by the way, that you can’t manage through attrition this downsizing of government. . . . There are those who say it’s not possible,” he said. “And I’m looking at a room of people that understand it is possible. You’ve been doing it for a very long time.”
Speaking with reporters, Wall wouldn’t confirm if the four per cent number is accurate, nor would he say if specific departments would be targeted.
Wall referred to the upcoming budget as a “bold step” where the province will head down a different path than its federal and other provincial counterparts, which are planning deficits and counting on growth “to some day take care of it.” Saskatchewan, he said, will reduce its budget and reduce the size of government.
Despite talk of smaller government, Wall repeatedly emphasized growth, in terms of population, jobs, trade and innovation.
By Hannah Scissons, The StarPhoenixMarch