Health minister favours warnings on cigarettes as feds outline tobacco strategy

MONTREAL — The federal health minister says she’s in favour of putting health warnings directly on individual cigarettes in what she calls a “bold” idea.”

The proposed measure is being studied by Health Department officials, Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Thursday as she announced Canada’s tobacco strategy.

“Some people have suggested the idea of putting a warning on individual cigarettes and using what we call sliding shell,” she told the Tobacco Control Forum on World No Tobacco Day.

“I have to tell you these ideas are being studied and I also have to tell you I really like them. They are quite bold.”

Petitpas Taylor said she expects plain packaging for cigarettes to become reality by the end of the year after Bill S-5 received royal assent last week.

The new packaging rules for tobacco products prohibit promotional information, branding and logos, and were firmly opposed by Big Tobacco.

The Canadian Cancer Society’s Rob Cunningham welcomed the minister’s comments on the individual warnings.

“The tobacco companies place the brand name and logos on the cigarette themselves, it’s a very good way to communicate with consumers,” Cunningham said.

“Under plain packaging, they will no longer be able to have that, so it is a great idea to have a health warning.”

It could be as simple as a word like “cancer” or “emphysema” on a cigarette, Cunningham said.

“There are 27 billion cigarettes sold (every year) in Canada,” he added.

“If we can have a health warning on each of those, it’s going to inform consumers, it’s going to create public discussion, it’s going to make the product less appealing and it’ll help fight contraband because it will have a unique marking on cigarettes legitimately sold in Canada.”

The federal strategy unveiled Thursday aims to reduce the number of smokers by 2035, from the current level of about 15 per cent of the population to about five per cent or less.

“When I look at the rates of tobacco use, we have certainly come a long ways, but I personally believe a lot of work needs to be done in this area,” said Petitpas Taylor.

An estimated four million Canadians still smoke and about 45,000 die each year from tobacco use.

Petitpas Taylor says $80.5 million set aside in the last federal budget will be added to the existing investment, bringing the total to about $330 million over five years.

She says that money will help fund investments to protect youth, increase scientific research, fund non-government organizations and help curb smoking in Indigenous communities, where rates are considerably higher.

“We want to make sure that programs are developed for Indigenous communities by Indigenous communities,” she said.

Questioned about how to reconcile a robust tobacco initiative with the introduction of legal recreational cannabis by late summer, Petitpas Taylor said marijuana rules are necessary given Canada has the highest number of cannabis users among youth in developed countries.

A tobacco-free society should remain a goal, Cunningham said, adding that federal and provincial cannabis legislation is modelled from lessons learned from tobacco.

“Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death,” he said. “The health effects from tobacco are far greater than cannabis.”

Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, said the strategy helps the overall effort, but he deplored the lack of tough action on the industry.

Perley said tobacco companies have increased their bottom lines by increasing wholesale prices outside of Canada.

“The federal government should attempt to recoup some of that as a means of financing the federal strategy, which is perfectly reasonable,” he said.

“We have the polluter-pays principle in environmental legislation, we should be doing the same here for tobacco control and the federal strategy.”

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