We’re ‘not in bed with big tobacco': federal health minister

MontrealGazette.com – health
Published: Thursday, December 09, 2010.   Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq declared Thursday 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.

“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 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.”

By then, Health Canada had spent more than $3.6 million on public-opinion research and other related costs to develop the new labels and to set up a national quit line to appear on cigarette packs. The research, carried out between 2005 and 2009, all showed the old graphics were becoming less effective with Canadian smokers and that larger, more graphic images were needed to curb smoking. The warnings were first introduced in 2001 to cover 50 per cent of the pack.

“Health Canada spent more than $3.6 million dollars developing improved warning labels for cigarette packages. We know the whole process was stalled when the tobacco lobby came in saying they didn’t like it. We know studies show the new labels would stop kids from smoking and save lives, so why let the tobacco lobby decide what our anti-smoking policy will be. When will we have the new labels?” NDP leader Jack Layton asked Aglukkaq.

“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.”

Earlier in the day, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer joined anti-smoking advocates to express bewilderment about a process they say got off the rails earlier this year – so the target of December 2010 for the new labels and a national quit line on cigarette packs could not be met.

“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.

“We do not need more study on the effectiveness of health warnings and the need for Canada’s to be renewed. We just need to do it, said Strang, who travelled to Ottawa to deliver the blunt message to MPs on the House of Commons health committee.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, testified the project appeared to be moving along well at Health Canada. In September 2009, department officials showed her group and others mock-ups of bigger, more graphic pictures and messages – including the image of iconic Canadian cancer victim Barb Tarbox – to cover most of the panel’s surface in preparation for drafting final regulations to be published in the first part of 2010.

“Something happened when this file left Health Canada,” Callard testified.

She added, “Let’s be clear. The government can’t Twitter or Facebook out of its regulatory responsibility”

Garfield Mahood of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association testified that “virtually everyone at Health Canada” knows updating the health warnings “must be done.” He also said that since being “side-swiped” by the decision to delay publishing new regulations, Health Canada has not discussed social media strategies with his group.

Meanwhile, tobacco control expert Geoffrey Fong of the University of Waterloo presented his own research, undertaken as part of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project (ITC). The data show a decline in seven key indicators of health-warning effectiveness.

“From the evidence, there is no justification for delaying the revision of the health warnings,” said Fong, pointing to ITC data showing more than 750,000 smokers are no longer reading the warnings closely.

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1 Comment

  1. see that television commercial with Dennis VanDerGinst? I think that one made a clever observation about this.

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