Canada is no longer at the forefront of cigarette package regulation

Image from new U.S. cigarette package

The United States government has just announced that cigarette packages will soon have to display graphic warning labels that cover 50% of the box. The media are abuzz about the “scary” and “gory” images. What’s the big deal? Canada has had graphic warning labels since 2000. Anyone who’s seen a cigarette pack has noticed the pictures of diseased lungs, a choking man, or the other images designed to make smokers think twice. They were the first of their kind in the world, but they have since been surpassed by other countries. In 2010, Australia announced that by 2012 all cigarette packages must be devoid of brand logos and be largely devoted to health warnings.

Image from cigarette package in Australia (below)

 In the wake of the U.S. announcement, tobacco industry stocks lost value. Although largely silent after the U.S. government unveiled the proposed package images, the industry had already suggested it would challenge the regulations in court. In Australia, an industry spokesperson told the media that the Australian government could expect to spend “millions of taxpayer dollars in legal fees” to defend the tough new requirements. In Canada, the tobacco industry has taken a lower-key approach to thwart regulations.

 The graphic warnings on Canadian cigarette packages are 11 years old and, according to public health experts, have lost their impact. The smoking rate in Canada fell after the tobacco regulations of 2000, which included other measures such as point-of-sale signage, but has plateaued in recent years at about 20%. Health Canada had announced a revision of the package warnings, but to the dismay of health advocates, it reversed itself in September 2010 when the Conservative government said it would instead crack down on black-market tobacco trade.

 Several months after this unexpected change of course by Stephen Harper’s government, the CBC published an investigation that documented a quiet but extensive lobby effort by the tobacco industry.  The lobbyists included Conservative party insiders and the Chamber of Commerce. They had repeated contacts with federal ministries and the prime minister’s office during the preceding two years. Although the details of the communications are not known, they included discussions about contraband tobacco.

Contraband tobacco in Canada is a significant problem that costs more than $2 billion per year in lost tax revenue, supports criminal gangs, and puts cigarettes into the hands of youth. The tobacco industry might be expected to want the government to direct its resources toward reducing illegal competition with brand-name cigarettes. In fact, the Web site  is sponsored by the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. It seems that the government accepted the industry’s logic. The minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq, took cover from abandoning the package revisions by, at the same time, announcing new initiatives on attacking illegal tobacco.

 Although public health advocates also want the government to do more about illegal tobacco trade, they were displeased with the backtrack on expanded package warnings. The CBC exposé put more pressure on the government, and in early 2011, Health Canada reinitiated the package warning revisions.  If enacted, the new requirements would include graphic warnings over 75% of the package and a toll-free telephone number and a Web site address for quit-smoking advice. A public comment on the proposed regulations closed in May, and the final document is forthcoming.

Image from Canadian cigarette pack (below)

 Canada is no longer at the forefront of cigarette package regulation; Australia is. At least Canada is staying ahead of the US, which only now is catching up with other advanced nations. But none of the three countries has fully enacted its proposal. We should expect the tobacco industry to continue efforts to derail any government action that reduces the appeal of its deadly products.

A second image from the new American campaign against smoking.  On cigarette packages. (below)

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