Canada should follow U.S. lead on tobacco

When compared to U.S. efforts to make tobacco less addictive, Canada’s plan to reduce cigarette consumption is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

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Opinion

When compared to U.S. efforts to make tobacco less addictive, Canada’s plan to reduce cigarette consumption is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Canadian Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett announced on June 9 that this country is poised to become the first in the world to mandate a warning be printed on every cigarette, beginning in 2023.

Ottawa proposes warnings printed on each cigarette

A smoker puts out a cigarette in a public ash tray in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 31, 2016. Canada is poised to become the first country in the world to require that a warning be printed on every cigarette. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Canada is poised to become the first country in the world to require that a warning be printed on every cigarette.

The move builds on Canada's mandate to include graphic photo warnings on tobacco products' packaging — a groundbreaking policy that started an international trend when it was introduced two decades ago.

"We need to address the concern that these messages may have lost their novelty, and to an extent we worry that they may have lost their impact as well," Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said at a news conference Friday.

"Adding health warnings on individual tobacco products will help ensure that these essential messages reach people, including the youth who often access cigarettes one at a time in social situations, sidestepping the information printed on a package."

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The plan is not be confused with the warnings and grisly pictures that have already been printed on the outside of Canadian cigarette packages, a novel practice when it started 20 years ago and was then copied by other countries.

Despite seeing the pictures — blackened lungs, an up-close portrait of young woman’s rotting mouth, a sorrowful man on breathing apparatus, dying of cancer — 10 per cent of Canadians still smoke and an estimated 48,000 die each year of smoking-related illnesses.

The new initiative will add a printed warning on each cigarette. The wording has been yet been determined, but Ms. Bennett likes the punchy alliteration of “Poison in every puff.”

Ms. Bennett didn’t present research to support her government’s far-fetched hope that smokers who are undeterred by warnings on the outside of every pack will suddenly change their mind about lighting up when they see their cigarette inscribed with a printed message. Perhaps she also believes people will alter their behaviour when they get a dire warning on the slip of paper inside a fortune cookie.

Unlike Canada, the U.S. is not proposing a gimmick in its fight against tobacco addiction. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced it will push for a law forcing the tobacco industry to substantially reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes.

The FDA says it will lobby for nicotine to be restricted to “minimally addictive or non-addictive levels.” The goal is to reduce “the likelihood that future generations of young people become addicted to cigarettes and help more currently addicted smokers to quit.”

DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett

By taking aim at nicotine, the FDA is targeting head-on the substance in tobacco that keeps smokers hooked and, incidentally, ingesting the dozens of other hazardous chemicals in every cigarette.

The push to drastically reduce the nicotine in cigarettes will undoubtedly be opposed with fervour by lawyers for Big Tobacco and their political allies. These are the same corporations that have admitted in past legal challenges that they have purposely increased nicotine content to make it harder for smokers to quit, which led to the industry being disparaged as one that knowingly kills its customers.

The New York Times reports the tobacco industry is already preparing arguments to oppose the FDA attempt to impose a rule lowering nicotine content. It will argue the new rules would prompt smokers to turn to the black market for cigarettes with more nicotine. Also, if restricted to low-nicotine cigarettes, they might smoke more and worsen their health with the other chemicals that abound in cigarettes.

One hopes the legal authorities adjudicating the FDA’s attempt to reduce nicotine will keep a clear vision of what’s paramount in this issue.

Cigarettes are addictive. Surveys show about 70 per cent of cigarette smokers want to quit. Lowering nicotine levels to minimally addictive levels would help free people from this deadly habit.

Viewed from north of the border, a victory by the FDA would make it easier for Canada to impose a lower legal limit on nicotine and make Canadian cigarettes less addictive. Such a measure would be much more effective than printing yet another warning committed smokers will surely ignore.

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