Canada - federal govt health minister, "not in bed with big tobacco.."

December 9, 2010 - Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq declared Thursday, December 9th the federal government is "not in bed with big tobacco" — and pledged to unveil an aggressive anti-smoking communications strategy within weeks that may include bigger and more graphic health warnings on cigarette packages.

Aglukkaq made the comments after a rough day of testimony at parliamentary hearings on why the Conservative government has yet to follow through on a long-running plan — first conceived in 2004 and almost unveiled earlier this year — to force tobacco companies to update health warnings.

Background: After more than six years of study, design and focus groups, the federal government has halted its plan to require tobacco companies to update the warnings on the side of cigarette packages with larger and more grotesque images. (Canada - Health Canada shelves update of graphic warning messages to concentrate on the problem of contraband tobacco..) Health Canada told provinces and territories that its tobacco strategy will instead concentrate on the problem of contraband cigarettes, an issue that has been highlighted by the tobacco industry. (Canada - action must be taken to control the illicit cigarette problem..)

Development of new warning labels - according to a document from Health Canada detailing the total estimated expenditures reveals that the ministry spent $3.15 million on public opinion research, contracts and other miscellaneous expenses. (Canada - millions lost in revamping cigarettes graphic warnings..)

Canada - c-store association applauds move by govt to focus on nation's tobacco contraband problem..

In 2000, Canada became the first country to put graphic warning labels on cigarette packages. Canada’s ranking for cigarette package health warnings has dropped from 1st in 2001, to 8th in 2008 to 15th in 2010. (Canadian Cancer Society releases report on health warnings on cigarette packages..)

Alberta, Canada - family of anti-smoking activists wants her photo on cigarette packs..
"I have not shelved that project," Aglukkaq told reporters, saying she wanted to re-examine the entire anti-tobacco marketing plan so a social media component could be developed.

"You can't just put all your resources into one initiative. It has to be much broader. A lot has changed since the studies were conducted. We now have Twitter. We now have Facebook. We have a number of social media outlets that we can make use of."

The health minister reiterated the same message in the House of Commons, after the NDP (New Democratic Party of Canada) and Liberals wanted to know why the labelling renewal project was stalled. According to departmental records introduced this week to the health committee of the House of Commons, Health Canada informed Imperial Tobacco in May that the project was "suspended."

"The government had a choice to tell big tobacco to get lost. It had a choice to put the health of Canadians ahead of the commercial interests of big tobacco," added Liberal health critic Ujjal Dosanjh.

Aglukkaq shot back, saying the federal government "is committed to reducing youth smoking, helping Canadians quit smoking, and addressing the pressure of contraband tobacco. We are taking action. Shortly after the election, we introduced tobacco legislation which is now in effect, so we are demonstrating our leadership in this area."

"Provincial and territorial governments remain puzzled as to why the initiative to renew health warnings was stopped at the last minute with no consultation. The background work on this initiative . . . had been completed, and there was no hint of concern or reluctance on the part of Health Canada officials as that work progressed," testified Dr. Robert Strang of Nova Scotia's Department of Health Promotion and Protection.

More comments from tobacco control professionals on why they can not understand why the update of pictorial warnings was halted. - see 1st reference.

There's certainly good reason to discourage people from smoking. The Canadian Cancer Society says on average, 395 Canadians will die from lung cancer every week. Health Canada says cigarette smoking is the single most important preventable cause of lung cancer, accounting for 85 per cent of all new cases of lung cancer in Canada.

Besides the human cost, the Campaign for a Smoke-Free Alberta website notes that each year, tobacco use costs the Canadian economy an estimated $17 billion and the Alberta economy $1.8 billion. Additional societal costs arise from lost income due to premature death, disability, worker absenteeism, reduced productivity, and tobacco subsidies. "In fact, it has been estimated that it costs employers about $2,565 more annually to employ a smoker than to employ a non-smoker," says the website.

References: We're 'not in bed with big tobacco': federal health minister by Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News, Vancover Sun, 12/10/2010; Time for Canada to be a leader again, Lethbridge Herald Opinon, 12/11/2010.