Ontario tobacco growers who took federal buyout money are exploiting loopholes to keep growing the crop, an anti-smoking lobby charges.
While virtually every Ontario producer took the buyout last year, the province still produced the same size crop in 2009 as it did in 2008 before the incentive to get out of the business kicked in.
If the program isn't getting growers out of the industry, it's "a colossal waste of money," says the federal Liberal health critic.
"Even if it follows the letter of the law, it's not the spirit," said Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, a doctor. "I don't think the auditor-general would be happy with the way the government is spending this money."
Tobacco farmers were paid $286 million in compensation last year when the tobacco production quota system was scrapped and replaced with a new licensing system.
All but 18 growers took the buyout, averaging about $275,000, agreeing never to grow tobacco again.
But 118 growers were licensed last summer under the new system and an estimated 22-million-pound crop was produced, the same as in 2008.
Many people who hold the new tobacco licences struck deals with experienced growers who took the buyout, said Neil Collishaw of Ottawa-based Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada.
"Licences have been issued to non-farmers, sometimes living in distant communities, who provide legal cover to tobacco farmers who have been paid to stop growing tobacco, but are continuing to farm the same quantities on the same land," he said.
Collishaw said people have told him about tobacco farmers growing the crop for relatives or friends who are tobacco licence holders.
The Free Press was contacted by a former grower and a neighbour of a grower who confirmed Collishaw's claims about loopholes.
But Fred Neukamm, chairperson of the Ontario Flue-Cured Tobacco Grower Marketing Board, said the buyout program wasn't aimed at eliminating all tobacco production in Canada.
He said growers who took the buyout are legally allowed to work for a licence holder.
With a major investment in tobacco land and equipment, he said, many growers had no viable alternative crop.
"People are stuck with debt and stranded infrastructure with no viable transitional opportunities, so they are forced to seek employment," Neukamm said.
Last May, an Agriculture Canada deputy minister sent a letter to the tobacco board advising that farmers who took the buyout could work for a licence holder if the relationship was at "arm's length" and any payments for services were at "fair market value."
Agriculture Canada's Patrick Girard said the quota buyout program was put in place "to assist those farmers exiting the program to pursue new opportunities in agriculture."
He said any farmer who breaches the buyout program's conditions will have to repay the assistance they received, plus interest.
Last April, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz moved to tighten up the buyout program by requiring licence holders to sign a declaration saying they're not receiving money from the quota buyout program.
Farmers who took the buyout couldn't be a partner or shareholder in a licensed tobacco operation.
But Collishaw said former growers still have the chance to get lucrative salaries from licensees to grow the crop.
The tobacco licensees were also eligible for a federal interest-free advance payout program offered to agricultural producers.
Neukamm said the tobacco board is working "rigorously" to prevent any abuse of the system, requiring full disclosure from licence holders who rent land or equipment from a farmer who took the buyout.
The tobacco marketing board, which once served the interests of thousands of tobacco growers, is now a small government-appointed agency that oversees and enforces tobacco licensing. Its employees have shrunk from 15 to two and its Tillsonburg headquarters has been sold.
Neukamm said Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada appeared to be on a "witch hunt" for tobacco farmers and should devote more effort to urging the federal government to curb the growing market for untaxed contraband tobacco.
Collishaw said the number of tobacco licences granted in Ontario is likely to grow next year.
Neukamm said more licences are possible because the production of Ontario tobacco lags behind the demand by manufacturers serving the Canadian market.