Canada moves forward on plain tobacco packs

cigarette packaging
A man points at proposed cigarette packaging by the World Health Organization (WHO) showing various ailments caused by cigarette smoking, displayed at the WHO office in Manila on October 10, 2011. The World Health Organization's chief on October 10 urged governments to unite against "big tobacco", as she accused the industry of dirty tricks, bullying and immorality in its quest to keep people smoking. AFP PHOTO / JAY DIRECTO

OTTAWA – The federal government plans to consult Canadians about how best to implement measures to curb smoking that include requiring plain packaging for tobacco products, Health Minister Jane Philpott said Tuesday.

The dialogue is one of the initial steps in Canada’s plan to mandate a standard package size for tobacco products and a total ban on the use of colours, logos and graphics on cigarette packs.

Philpott’s announcement — timed to coincide with World No Tobacco Day — also came as New Zealand released draft regulations for consultations to accompany a bill before its parliament.

Norway, which has already conducted consultations, also signalled Tuesday it will introduce a bill in its parliament in early June.

Here at home, the proposal is already sparking fierce opposition from the industry — a feud that is likely to be another installation in the legal fight between Ottawa and Big Tobacco.

The government is well aware industry players are against the measure, Philpott said, adding their response comes as “no surprise.”

“Australia, some time ago, had a successful legal outcome and the U.K. very recently had a successful legal outcome,” Philpott said.

“There’s good evidence that gives us confidence, these are obviously in other legal systems but the evidence is out there that … the needs to protect public health trump the realities of the industry.”

The industry is making its opinions “widely known” among MPs, Philpott added, but she stressed the government will not be changing its mind on its plan.

“There’s no question about whether we are going to proceed with plain packaging regulations,” Philpott said.

“We want to know how best to do it.”

In addition to Australia, plain packaging has also been embraced in France, the United Kingdom and Ireland, while formal consideration is also underway in Slovenia, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Belgium and South Africa.

The fight against tobacco is far from over, insists long-time anti-tobacco advocate Rob Cunningham — a lawyer turned senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in Canada, including about 30 per cent of all cancer deaths, he noted, adding Tuesday’s announcement is significant.

“Consultation is part of the regulatory process,” he said in an interview following the announcement. “It is moving things along. Other countries have had consultation processes as well.”

What the Canadian government is contemplating goes beyond what Australia has done in some respects, such as a possible ban on “super-slim” cigarettes, he added.

“That would be something Australia hasn’t done,” Cunningham said, pointing out the product is often favoured among young women.

Cunningham also said the government has much to consider as it eyes a tobacco policy update in time for a deadline of next spring.

“The main piece of federal tobacco legislation, the Tobacco Act, was passed almost two decades ago and it needs to be amended to respond to current challenges,” he said.

Philpott said Tuesday the federal tobacco control strategy is certainly due for an update, adding the government will “definitely” consider regulations on e-cigarettes as it eyes changes.

There is an absence of federal regulations for the products at the moment, Philpott noted.

“It is a challenging issue,” she said. “We lack a strong evidence base around e-cigarettes because they are fairly new products.”