Canada’s status as a world leader in anti-smoking efforts can only be maintained if it joins other countries around the world in forcing tobacco products to be sold in plain packages, the Canadian Cancer Society said Tuesday.
The country’s leading cancer research organization released a report urging the federal governments to strip logos, colours and other branding elements from tobacco product packaging while leaving prominent health warnings intact.
Brand names and other elements would be presented in drab colours intended to make the products inside the packages less appealing.
Such measures are a logical next step for a country that has already forged a reputation as a crusader in the global effort to reduce smoking, said Society senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham.
Adopting plain packaging, he contended, would allow Canada to maintain that reputation while keeping pace with countries who are already putting such measures in place.
“It’s mini-billboards that make the product more appealing. Cigarettes are addictive and cause disease,” Cunningham said in a telephone interview.
“There’s no way that they should have attractive components. There’s no way that the tobacco industry should be able to create, through the genius of their marketing, these lifestyle images of femininity and masculinity and sophistication and status in association with a deadly product.”
Canada’s cigarette packages are already dominated by health warnings and vivid images depicting the consequences of smoking.
The Society examined 198 countries in its latest report, ranking them according to the amount of packaging space occupied by health warnings and other cautionary messages.
Canada was tied with Brunei for fourth place with 75 per cent, trailing only Thailand, Australia and Uruguay.
But Cunningham said the remaining space on the package can still be tweaked to make the product attractive to present and future smokers. He said companies can still present their logos in colourful fonts or show images of striking scenery or alluring people to help sell their products.
Canada should follow the precedent established by Australia in 2012, he said.
Packages in that country no longer show compelling images, and brand name details are printed in a drab brown font deliberately chosen for its unattractive appearance.
“We’re trying to take the allure of smoking away to make it unattractive, and packaging is part of that,” Cunningham said.
Australia’s smoking rates have declined since the plain packaging regulations came into effect, though only a small proportion of the change can be linked to the new rules. The country’s National Drugs Strategy Household Survey found that the number of smokers declined from 15.1 per cent of the population in 2010 to 12.8 per cent in 2013.
Several countries, including England, Ireland, New Zealand and France, are currently preparing to implement plain packaging legislation.
Cunningham said tobacco companies in those countries have voiced strenuous opposition to the new rules, and Canada’s big players appear poised to follow suit.
The Canadian division of JTI-Macdonald Corp. — manufacturer of several cigarette brands including Camel — said plain packaging rules are redundant in light of the long-standing campaigns to raise health concerns.
Corporate communications director Caroline Evans said the government should shift its focus to the illegal smokes trade rather than the legal one.
“Instead of implementing another misguided regulation, governments’ No. 1 priority should be combating Canada’s illegal trade where cigarettes are being sold untested, unregulated and untaxed — with no health warnings,” Evans wrote in an email.
“Almost 20 per cent of cigarettes in Canada are illegal, have zero per cent health warnings and don’t comply with any product regulations. Proceeds of this illegal trade fund over 175 criminal gangs in Canada.”
Canada’s other major tobacco companies, Imperial Tobacco Canada and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, did not respond to requests for comment.
Cunningham said pressure from cigarette manufacturers was not successful abroad, adding the situations in other countries may be useful guides to Health Canada if it decides to push for new laws.
Health Canada issued a statement acknowledging that officials are keeping an eye on plain packaging efforts beyond Canada’s borders and touting the country’s efforts to display health warnings and advertise resources to help smokers quit.
The agency said recent numbers from the Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey suggest smoking levels have reached a historic low among youth, with only seven per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 17 identifying as smokers.
With files from Alan Black