Why candy-flavoured cigars aren’t a valid tax revenue source

If you can admire nothing else about the tobacco industry, you can admire its hutzpah. Casa Cubana calls itself Canada’s fastest growing importer and distributor of quality cigars, tobacco accessories and convenience products. It has forwarded itself to lobby for the repeal of a law to ban candy-flavoured cigars — in a province that is suing the entire tobacco industry for $10 billion.

If you can admire nothing else about the tobacco industry, you can admire its hutzpah.

Casa Cubana calls itself Canada’s fastest growing importer and distributor of quality cigars, tobacco accessories and convenience products. It has forwarded itself to lobby for the repeal of a law to ban candy-flavoured cigars — in a province that is suing the entire tobacco industry for $10 billion.

And this, just days after the whole world was reminded of the health effects of smoking with the death of Eric Lawson. He was a famous Marlboro Man, who succumbed at age 72 to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a common cause of death among smokers.

Back in the days when I was riding my bike to work in the wee morning hours, my previous former boss would call this kind of news story a “room service bounce.” It’s a story so self-evidently calling for comment, you just can’t resist.

The Tobacco Reduction (Flavoured Tobacco Products) Amendment Act has made it through all the legislative stages of becoming law in Alberta. It only remains to receive royal proclamation, which Health Minister Fred Horne says will happen sometime this year.

When that happens, big strapping Marlboro Men will no longer be able to pick up a couple of bubble-gum smokes at the checkout counter, while filling their pickups for another day working the range.

Nor will the teenagers from the middle schools and high schools just down the street.

Luc Martial is the guy taking media calls for tobacco on this one.

He said “legitimate industry stakeholders” (I hope that excludes all the illegitimate ones) are seeking a repeal of the ban. They say the government is making a mistake in forgoing $11 million a year in tax revenues from the sale of Casa Cuban cigars.

The company recently sent a letter to Premier Alison Redford and a number of cabinet ministers on the matter. It says the government was “unfortunately duped” into thinking that little cigars containing one of the world’s most addictive and health-destroying substances, which are available one at a time for pocket change, and which are soaked in fruit-flavoured chemicals, was a “relevant youth health priority.”

Hmmm. Imagine that.

In the same (long) sentence, the letter says Alberta is one the verge of “unjustifiably and without warrant undermining the rights of hundreds of thousands of voters in the province and throwing (away) millions of dollars in tax revenues.”

Well, the government forgoes a lot more than $11 million a year in revenue for a lot of public policy reasons, not just the threat to health and the cost of health care for the customers of Casa Cubana.

And as far as undermining the rights of hundreds of thousands of voters, we’ll not mention the government’s unilateral action on pay and pensions of its civil servants, nurses and teachers. Suffice to say that acting counter to the interests of specific voter groups is something governments sometimes do.

Two years ago, when the province announced it was joining B.C., Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec (headquarters of Casa Cubana) in their massive class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry, it was reported that 13 per cent of Alberta youth aged 12 to 19 were smokers. Among adults, it’s 20 per cent (and falling).

The best hope for a lifetime addiction to tobacco is to hook customers when they are young. Luc Martial and his employers may deny it all they want, but small, cheap, single-issue, candy-flavoured cigars are a quintessential gateway product.

They may be obtained illegally by underage customers — just as youth illegally access alcohol and other drugs. But that is not an argument against this ban.

Casa Cubana’s own website says a federal law regulating the sale of these little cigars “is about morality, not health.”

How’s that for hutzpah? A tobacco firm claiming the moral high ground.

Unfortunately for them, our “duped” governments sometimes act in “immoral” ways, too.

My grandchildren will be well into voting age before the provincial lawsuits attempting to recover the health costs of caring for the tobacco industry’s victims is settled. A whole lot more than $11 million will be spent on legal fees to do it.

In the meantime, I expect my government to consider my grandchildren and bounce Casa Cubana’s plea from the room, and their products off the shelves.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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