The hub of the illegal cigarette trade makes its home in eastern Ontario and is estimated to cost Canadians $1.6 billion in lost taxes every year.

RCMP say illegal cigarettes now dominate the entire Canadian black market. In 2006, more than 90 per cent of illegal smokes seized by RCMP originated from the American Akwesasne territory, near Cornwall, Ont.

Eastern Ontario is such a hot bed for smuggled smokes, the RCMP has set up a smuggling task force in Cornwall.

"We see vehicles loaded to the ceilings, operating dangerously and in plain view of the citizens so we're very concerned about the public safety," said Sgt. Michael Harvey, of the Central St. Lawrence Valley RCMP.

While the RCMP intervenes at all levels of illegal trade, police say the masterminds behind the schemes are their main targets.

Growing problem

This isn't the first time the region's seen smuggling activity, however.

In the mid-1990s smuggling was hot -- smugglers were making money, smokers were saving money and the government was losing money.

Although cheap cigarettes are manufactured largely on American Akwesasne territory, near Cornwall, cigarettes are also manufactured in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont., Kahnawake near Montreal and Six Nations territory near Brantford, Ont.

As of Oct. 31, 2007, 462,376 cartons of illegal cigarettes were seized by the RCMP; a number that surpasses cigarette seizures during a smuggling peak in 1994.

The situation in the mid-1990s was considered a cross-border crisis until government tax cuts helped curb the problem.

That problem, however, has since ballooned along with the retail price for a pack of cigarettes, which sits at about $11 per pack and $70 per carton.

Million-dollar bust

A recent bust in Kingston, Ont. was the biggest bust in Canadian history.

"It's valued at well over $1 million, $1.2 million," said Kingston RCMP Cpl. Nancy Mason.

Harvey says there's lots of money to gain in the illegal cigarette trade but that cash also comes with risk.

"They're taking desperate measures to try and make money doing organized crime," he told CTV News.

An "overblown issue"?

Harvey says the statistics show that smuggled smokes are exploding in eastern Ontario, however, not everyone agrees with that point.

"The production and the movement of tobacco products whether they be legal or illegal has been somewhat overblown in that it's been attached to you know the smuggling of people and the funding terrorist organizations," said Leslie Logan of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribunal Council on the American side of Akwesasne territory.

"I think from any authority's perspective that certainly you want to have some measure of control over that," said Logan. "But we don't have a corner on the market here. This happens everywhere."

With a report from CTV's Catherine Lathem