Jan. 11, 2011

Tobacco health labels won’t convince addicts, association says

The Minister of Health last week announced plans to expand health warning labels on Canadian cigarette packages, a move meant to discourage young adults from starting to smoke, and to encourage long-time smokers to quit cigarettes. But one interest group is skeptical that the expanded labels will actually lower smoking levels.

“There’s some scientific evidence that suggests it will help, but if you read the commentary that people have written in the papers, they’re addicted, so they’re going to continue to smoke,” said Steve Tennant, vice president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA), whose members credit between 40 and 50 per cent of annual sales to tobacco products, with independent downtown Ottawa stores seeing sales as high as 60 per cent.

Nepean-Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre joined Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq at Tunney’s Pasture Dec. 30 to announce the plan, which includes expanding health warning labels on cigarette packages from 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the cover, and adding real victims’ testimonials about their struggles with smoking-related diseases.

Canadian anti-smoking activist Barb Tarbox, who died of lung cancer in 2003 after a whirlwind tour of the country to show young Canadians what happens if you smoke, will be featured in her dying moments on some of the new labels. Many new labels will be in colour.

The plan will also launch a new anti-smoking campaign on social media sites such as Facebook, and will introduce a nation-wide toll-free quit line.

“We know that having health warning labels on packages is still one of the most effective ways to warn smokers of health hazards. Therefore we will toughen efforts to make them bolder and bigger,” said Aglukkaq.

But Tennant believes these kinds of initiatives do not really make much difference, particularly for long-time smokers. “If you want to buy cigarettes from us, you’re going to buy cigarettes from us,” he said.

Indeed, one Quickie employee in Ottawa South said cigarette sales at his store have actually gone up since convenience stores have had to keep tobacco products hidden from view.

“Whether you can see it or not, you know we sell cigarettes,” Tennant said. “All it does is slow down service, but as for sales it doesn’t really affect them.”

Tennant added that if the Canadian government really wants to tackle smoking in Canada, it needs to focus on a bigger problem: contraband.

“It’s great to govern the legal products, but it’s frustrating to see business eroding around you because of contraband products that don’t have health warning labels, that don’t pay the taxes, that follow none of the guidelines the Feds have put in place,” he said. “What we get frustrated with is that the Ontario government especially and the Feds don’t take action on the amount of contraband flowing into the country, particularly into areas like Ottawa,” which is bookended by contraband hubs in Cornwall and Montreal.

In 2008, contraband cigarette seizures jumped to its highest level ever, hitting nearly 967,000 cartons, compared to only 29,000 cartons in 2001. Much of that contraband circulates around Ontario.

The Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation both sent representatives to the conference to offer support to the government’s initiatives.

“This outstanding package of new measures will increase awareness of tobacco’s health effects and will reduce smoking among both youth and adults,” said Daniel Demers, director of national public issues at the Canadian Cancer Society. “The announcement comes just in time for New Year’s and provides a further impetus for the many Canadians who will make a resolution to quit smoking.”

The new health warning labels will appear on cigarette packages “as soon as possible” Aglukkaq said, but she wouldn’t give any sort of time line.