OTTAWA — The federal government’s intention to launch updated, larger and more graphic health warnings on cigarette packs is being applauded by anti-smoking and health advocates. But one tobacco company is questioning whether Thursday’s announcement evades a bigger problem — the sale of contraband cigarettes.
“Health Canada is ignoring the real tobacco problem in Canada today, and has decided to put further regulations on a legal industry that is already operating with a ton of regulations,” said Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco.
The 16 new warnings, several of which were unveiled Thursday, will cover 75 per cent of the front and back of each cigarette package, and include a support phone number, website and testimonials from smokers.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq also said the federal government is developing a social media anti-smoking campaign to target young smokers.
Current regulations stipulate that warnings, which have been used since 2000, must cover 50 per cent of the packaging.
Gagnon said legal cigarettes are highly taxed, stores must hide packs from public view, and the flow of communication from industry to the consumer is stilted.
“But at the same time . . . kids have easy access to tobacco products for a fraction of the price of the legal products. . . . Where’s the health warning going to be on those Ziploc bags?”
Nearly one in five packs of cigarettes Canadian teen smokers buy are contraband, according to a September 2009 report published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
That number was even higher in Quebec and Ontario, where more than 25 per cent of adolescent smokers were said to be inhaling illicit tobacco products.
Imperial Tobacco’s negative reaction is predictable, said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.
“The tobacco industry won’t like this announcement because these warnings will reduce sales, which is exactly why these warnings are worthy of being supported,” he said.
During her announcement, Aglukkaq cited 2009 research indicating that 18 per cent of Canadians smoke and that the habit kills some 37,000 people each year.
Those numbers, she said, are too high and must be curbed.
“Canadian and international research has shown that to be effective, health warnings must be noticeable and memorable. They must also be believable and relevant,” she said.
One of the warnings unveiled Thursday shows an emaciated woman lying on her deathbed, her eyes staring vacantly to the side.
The warning alongside the photograph reads: “This is what dying of lung cancer looks like. Barb Tarbox died at 42 of lung cancer caused by smoking.”
An Edmonton Journal photographer, Greg Southam, captured the image of shortly before the iconic Canadian cancer victim died in May 2003.
He said Tarbox, who became an anti-smoking crusader, would have been ecstatic to see the message and her photo, which she had requested in order to capture how ugly and awful it is to die of lung cancer.
“I spoke to her before she died, about this and she really wanted this to happen,” he said. “In fact, I know exactly what she would say. Her favourite expression was, ‘Phenomenal.’ She would really mean it now.”
After Tarbox was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2002, she staged an aggressive and effective individual anti-smoking campaign. She spoke to more than 50,000 students at schools across Canada about her 30-year smoking habit and the cancerous tumours it left in her lungs and brain.
The newspaper gave the photograph to Health Canada and won’t be making money from it.
“Using a testimonial from her tragic story will make people stop and think about the dangers of tobacco use,” Aglukkaq said.
The Tarbox image was tested in 2008 by Decima Research on 60 focus groups of adult smokers, and it was found it to be an effective anti-smoking image.
Aglukkaq said the federal government will begin drafting legislation for the new warning labels in the new year, but she wouldn’t offer a specific timeline for when the ads would begin to appear.
Some opposition members labelled Thursday’s announcement a “flip-flop.”
In September, the government announced it would freeze plans to update warnings — plans that already had been in the works for more than six years.
“Thankfully, enough public pressure was brought to bear on the minister, and we welcome this flip-flop wholeheartedly,” said NDP health critic Megan Leslie. “It’s encouraging to see that with enough voices coming together, we can still influence this government.”
With files from Andrea Sands, Edmonton Journal