It is disappointing that, in Canadian politics, so little is said about regulating tobacco products given that such products still pose a massive threat to public health — a threat that is within Ottawa’s power to quash.
Even though tobacco products are the cause of 30 per cent of all cancer and heart disease deaths and over 80 per cent of chronic obstructive lung disease casualties, even though cigarettes will kill a shocking one out of two of their long-term users, until this last election no victorious party had ever mentioned regulation of the tobacco industry in its platform. In this sense, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were an encouraging first. In his platform, the future prime minister promised to implement plain tobacco packaging, a reform that Big Tobacco has always fought ferociously.
Plain packs are packages stripped of the manufacturer’s colours, graphics and trademarks — features known to recruit kids and otherwise promote tobacco use. The absence of these distracting brand-building elements would make mandated warnings more impactful.
How important is the plain packaging reform? Martin Rothstein, the former president and CEO of one of Canada’s largest advertising agencies has warned that “the package is the core of all tobacco marketing. No country has a tobacco advertising ban until it deals with package-based tobacco advertising.”
Implicit in the language of the Liberal platform is the promise of a second, equally important, measure. The party has committed to enact packaging reforms “similar to those in Australia and the United Kingdom.” In those countries, the plainness of the packaging was just one of two key strategies; the other was to standardize the package’s size.
Every industry knows that marketing its products in different sizes and shapes, each aimed at different target audiences, sells. For example, consider the lipstick-sized “slims” and “super slims” packs now on the market that target and have become quite popular among women. The packages are so small and narrow that the size renders deterrent graphics, text warnings and the “smoking quit line” number all but illegible. If the government is sincere in its intent to reduce tobacco use, it will also eliminate the industry’s ability to use package shape and size to increase sales.
This week is National Non-Smoking Week, an important annual moment for taking stock of our progress in the fight against the tobacco epidemic. Too often the focus has been on convincing smokers to overcome their addiction. This is essentially a blame-the-victim approach to tobacco control, placing the responsibility for tobacco use on individuals, most of whom became addicted as minors. The success rate of this approach, even with patches and other nicotine-based pharmaceutical assistance, has not been impressive. Once a person is addicted, the horse has left the barn. Taking smokers out of the market, one at a time, is simply not cost effective.
Effective prevention must begin with an acknowledgement that the real responsibility for this wholly unnecessary epidemic lies with corporate behaviour — and, more often than not, corporate misbehaviour. Law reforms, such as the introduction of plain and standardized packaging, that are focused on reining in what the New York Times has called “a rogue industry,” have the potential to spare thousands of kids from the deleterious effects of tobacco use and encourage thousands of others to address their addiction. In Australia, smoking prevalence has fallen significantly following plain-pack implementation in 2012.
A product as dangerous as cigarettes would never be allowed to enter the market today. Not long ago, Health Canada predicted that tobacco use would kill 3 million Canadians presently alive. The Trudeau government should recognize that we are in the midst of a health crisis and do everything possible — short of a tobacco prohibition — to shut down this industry’s ability to encourage the sale of its products. There is no ethical, moral, or economic rationale that can justify failing to do everything possible to eliminate the market for tobacco products.
The government now faces a list of campaign promises longer than it will be able to honour. Not all will be kept. The health community must remind the government that, over time, thousands of preventable deaths are attached to keeping its promise on tobacco packaging.
– Garfield Mahood is President of the Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud and an Officer of the Order of Canada