Smuggling fuels plain pack argument

One of the last advertising vehicles available to cigarette manufacturers - packaging - could be parked permanently if government anti-smoking initiatives continue to gather momentum.Almost lost in the imbroglio over massive cigarette smuggling are three measures which could alter forever how...

One of the last advertising vehicles available to cigarette manufacturers – packaging – could be parked permanently if government anti-smoking initiatives continue to gather momentum.

Almost lost in the imbroglio over massive cigarette smuggling are three measures which could alter forever how manufacturers market their wares and open the door to plain or generic packaging for all tobacco products.

One of these measures – the study of plain packaging – is part of Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s national action plan on smoking and health.

The plan, spurred by a black market in cigarettes which the federal government’s own figures suggest has cornered 40% of the $12.5-billion-a-year Canadian tobacco manufacturing business, is multi-faceted.

As well as a critical look at packaging, the plan also calls for greater restrictions on the sale of cigarettes to minors and the banning of ‘kiddie packs’ – fewer cigarettes in smaller packages sold at lower prices; more restrictions on the location of cigarette vending machines; a requirement that manufacturers mark individual cigarettes to distinguish between those for export and those for domestic consumption; an $8-a-carton export tax paid by manufacturers; and a three-year health promotion surtax on manufacturers that will raise the $185 million the government intends to spend over the next 36 months on what Ottawa is calling ‘the most intensive anti-smoking campaign in Canadian history.’

Murray Kaiserman, a chemist and head of the tobacco products section of Health Canada in Ottawa, says that by Sept. 12 all cigarette packs will lose 30% to 40% of their surface area to health warnings.

Kaiserman says these warnings, eight in all in English and French, will take up the top 25% of all cigarette packs’ front and back panels.

He says the border around the messages will account for the rest of the space taken up.

He says the new federal regulations require a white message on a black background or vice-versa, adding the border around the message must be the same color as the text.

Kaiserman says the black-white scheme was chosen to make the health warnings stand out.

He says, at the moment, some health messages on cigarette packs do not stand out.

As well, he says as the front and back panels, manufacturers will also lose one side panel to required information on the ‘toxic constituents’ of tobacco.

Penalties for contravening the new rules can be severe.

Kaiserman says flouting the regulations could mean fines of up to $300,000 for manufacturers, although he says he expects them to comply fully with the regulations.

He says manufacturers have estimated their costs for these changes at $30 million.

The tobacco products industry’s response to this new measure – and to government considerations of plain packaging has been muted.

Rob Parker, president of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council, says there is no overall evidence anywhere plain packaging will reduce smoking.

Parker cites recent government research which found regular packaging and plain packaging had the same impact on smokers.

As for any industry response to anti-smoking developments, Parker says it has to be ascertained first what the government proposes.

Kaiserman says if the federal government decides on plain packaging it will not be imposed without a court challenge from the tobacco companies.

A spokeswoman for cigarette giant Imperial Tobacco in Montreal says plain packaging is an issue for the entire industry, and referred questions to the Manufacturers’ Council.

Kaiserman says Health Canada will be using ‘good marketing practices’ and qualitative and quantative research to look at current levels of recall of cigarette packs, and the impact of plain packaging.

He says Health Canada already has the go-ahead from the federal government and is now just waiting for funding.

He says the research should not take any longer than a year, and adds it will be ‘solid’ and ‘quick.’

Kaiserman says it will also be unique because ‘we’re breaking new ground’ since he says there is no research on the effects of just plain packaging on consumption, although Australia has tried to bring it in.

Leon Pierce, First Secretary, Public Affairs, at the Australian High Commission in Ottawa, says plain packaging has not yet been introduced Down Under because the Australian federal government in Canberra and the various state governments cannot reach an agreement on it.

Pierce notes tobacco is a ‘significant cash crop’ in the state of Victoria in southern Australia and in the far north of the state of Queensland in the eastern part of the country.

He says plain packaging advocates in Australia want cigarettes to be sold in a ‘really foul, yellowy-looking packet’ that has a large white warning panel on it.

And although they have not yet got their own way, Pierce points out that tobacco advertising in Australia is ‘at least as restricted as it is in Canada, and, possibly, even more.’

He says all tobacco advertising is banned in Australia and the sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies has been recently outlawed, too, adding, even the sale of chewing tobacco is illegal in his homeland.

In Canada, the Ontario government has been cracking down on smoking using advertising and legislation.

Recent flights of tv spots from Vickers & Benson Advertising in Toronto warn teenagers and young adults of the dangers of smoking.

And on the legislative front, the ndp government has a bill at the committee stage that would further change the look of cigarette packaging.

John Garcia, director of the health promotions branch at the Ministry of Health, says Ontario Bill-119′s Section 5 will give the provincial government ‘considerable control’ over health warnings, for example.

However, Garcia says, Ontario and the other provinces and territories except Quebec and New Brunswick have agreed the federal government should take the lead on the issue of plain packaging and are encouraging Ottawa to move to it immediately.