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Canada Declares War on Tobacco

New Scientist, December 14, 1996



THE Canadian government is introducing one of the toughest anti tobacco laws in the world. Even so, health groups are describing the bill as a missed opportunity because it fails to include innovative proposals that were considered in previous drafts.

The law introduces strict controls on the sale and advertising of tobacco. Companies will have to disclose the contents of cigarette smoke. As well as giving tar and nicotine contents on cigarette packets, says the government, manufacturers will be required to list other toxic constituents of smoke alongside their quantities. But with some 4000 such toxic components, the government plans to highlight only a handful on each packet.

Health Canada, the country's health ministry, says that poisons including cyanide, arsenic, formaldehyde and lead have been detected in the smoke of cigarettes regularly sold in Canada. Some of these substances are taken up from the soil by tobacco plants, while others are products of combustion. Some substances, however, could be added to cigarettes. One manufacturer has denied accusations that it added alkalising substances such as ammonia to allow nicotine to be absorbed through the mouth as well as the lungs.

This listing of toxic ingredients will be backed up by health messages carried on cigarette packets. "We intend to provide additional information, so people can interpret [the listings]," says a policy analyst with Health Canada. Sample messages include: "Chronic poisoning from arsenic can cause loss of appetite and weight, stomach and intestinal problems", and "4-aminobiphenyl is a bladder carcinogen and is banned from commercial use".

Health groups applaud this move, but are still pressing the government to publish the data it collects in full---a move that has not been tried in any other country. "This is where tobacco control will be ten years from now," says Eric LeGresley of the NonSmokers' Rights Association.

Anti-tobacco activists are also disappointed that the government has decided to restrict the messages on cigarette packets to health warnings. LeGresley argues that a label such as "A pack a day costs two thousand dollars a year" might be an even better deterrent, given that consumption seems to vary according to price (see Figure).

Some of the loudest complaints, however, concern the failure of the law to demand that cigarettes be sold in generic white packets with the brand name given in standard black lettering. "We have a major setback here," says LeGresley.

In March last year, an expert report commissioned by Health Canada concluded that generic packaging would break the link in consumers' minds between advertising images and specific brands. The report was based on five separate studies. "They all pointed in the same direction," says John Liefeld, a professor of consumer behaviour at the University of Guelph, Ontario. "Generic packaging would lower the incidence of smoking."

The parliamentary health committee endorsed the report and recommended that plain packaging be adopted. This would have undermined the tobacco companies' justification for advertising, as they have consistently claimed that adverts aim to encourage brand loyalty among existing smokers, rather than luring new customers.

The Canadian government has been working on the new law since September 1995, when the country's Supreme Court decided that existing restrictions on tobacco advertising violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. The government dropped the packaging proposal to avoid a similar legal challenge. Until the Supreme Court's decision, the ban affected all forms of tobacco advertising, from billboard displays to brand logos on baseball caps. In the 14 months since adverts were allowed, cigarette sales have increased by more than 3 per cent, according to government figures. That followed an even larger increase in the previous year, when widespread smuggling from the US forced both the federal and provincial governments to slash tobacco taxes--- cutting the price of a pack in half.

The new bill, which is described by the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council as "very extreme", is now being rushed through parliament. It is designed to discourage cigarette sales to the young, in particular. Young people buying cigarettes will have to show proof of age, just as they do for alcohol. The bill also prohibits cigarette vending machines and mail-order sales.

Some advertising will be permitted. Tobacco companies are still forbidden to advertise on television or radio, but will be allowed to place adverts in publications where readership is mostly adult, such as daily newspapers. Sponsorship of sporting and cultural events, which may be shown on television, will also be allowed.