The provincial government is starting the new year with a new program designed to help thousands of Manitobans quit smoking, being funded first on Shoppers Drug Mart's dime.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced the province's second foray into social impact bonds Wednesday, which will see government partner with Shoppers Drug Mart and Pharmacists Manitoba on a $2-million model to help 4,500 Manitobans butt out.
Shoppers will pay the $2-million tab over five years and if 12 per cent of registrants manage to quit smoking for one year or more, the pharmacy chain will be paid back $2.12 million by government.
Asked why the target for success of the program wasn't set higher, Friesen emphasized how difficult it is for smokers to quit and described the 12 per cent target as "ambitious."
Each registrant will get up to $380 in free nicotine replacement products (such as gum and patches) and counselling sessions with pharmacists. More than 500 Manitoba pharmacists are trained in smoking cessation programs and those who don't work at Shoppers Drug Mart can also help registrants of the program, which will begin in April.
"Many times, the products in and of themselves are not enough. And we know that when coupled with counselling, the accountability and the information that comes from the pharmacist who's taking the time to do it, that increases the chances of quitting smoking by 40 per cent," Friesen said.
The program will roll out in the Northern, Interlake-Eastern and Prairie Mountain regions of the province this year, areas where smoking rates are higher than the provincial smoking rate of 14.5 per cent (which is slightly below the national rate of 15.1 per cent). According to the province, the smoking rate in the Northern health region is about 33 per cent, while Interlake-Eastern's rate is 23 per cent and Prairie Mountain's rate is 22 per cent.
Friesen said he expects resources to come to the Winnipeg and Southern Health regions in second and third years of the program.
The health minister also hinted a plan to dissuade Manitobans from vaping — a method some are using to help them quit smoking cigarettes — may be in the works.
"We know on the other side we're seeing a rise of vaping and the normalization of that activity among youth concerns us. We see other provinces taking action. In Manitoba, we're contemplating how we can also do that," he said.
Manitoba's first social impact bond program was launched a year ago, almost to the day. On Jan. 7, 2019, the province announced a program to help pregnant, Indigenous women who were at risk of having their children apprehended. The women would be matched with doulas who could help with pre- and post-natal care, thanks to funding from private investors.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the use of social impact bonds a "scam" that benefits the private sector. He noted plenty of local non-profits, such as the Lung Association of Manitoba, could use more funding to develop smoking cessation programs.
"I think it’s immoral for people to be profiting off others’ misery like this," Lamont said. "And I think it’s a total abdication on the part of the government of their responsibility on issues of public health."
The province boasted its new social impact bond dedicated to help people quit smoking is a global first. A spokesperson for the Canadian Cancer Society said the organization has not seen a program designed like this anywhere else in the country and applauded the effort.
"Reducing tobacco use in Manitoba is an important and challenging task that requires a multi-pronged approach," spokesperson Sarah Hawkins said in a prepared statement.
"We are glad to see it on the government’s radar and look forward to hearing more about their complete tobacco reduction strategy."
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, January 9, 2020 at 9:55 AM CST: Clarifies that each registrant will get up to $380 in free nicotine replacement products (such as gum and patches) and counselling sessions with pharmacists.
10:07 AM: adds that program starts in April