Anti-smoking groups are urging Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq to stick with her department's plans to increase the size of warning labels on cigarette packages, rather than capitulate to the tobacco industry.
"The research commissioned by your department shows clearly that the larger the warning, the greater the positive impact it will have on its intended target audiences," eight of the organizations said Wednesday in a letter to Ms. Aglukkaq.
"We urge you to implement, at a minimum, the 75 per cent of the warnings which Health Canada was planning as well as the planned warnings and cessation messages inside packages."
Health Canada spent six years and $3.6-million on consultations around refreshing the labels that are a decade old and have lost much of their impact. Using that input, the department devised prototypes in which the warnings which now cover half of the packages would be increased to cover three-quarters.
But the tobacco companies objected to the plan. And, at a Commons health committee this week, Conservative MPs voted against a Liberal motion that would have required the larger warnings.
The discussions around the size of the labels follow Ms. Aglukkaq's statement last week that said she soon would announce a new tobacco strategy. It is assumed the strategy will include updated labels.
Three months ago, the minister told her provincial counterparts that, despite the work that had gone into refreshing the packages, the requirement for larger and more graphic images on cigarette packs was on hold, as was a proposed toll-free cessation help line. It is unclear why she has had an apparent change of heart.
Health Canada had been considering a number of larger and more gut-wrenching labels, including one of Canadian anti-tobacco crusader Barb Tarbox lying emaciated and dying of lung cancer in her hospital bed. The same image is also being considered for updated packages in the United States.
Ms. Tarbox's husband, Pat Tarbox, was said he was told by the minister's office that he could expect a call between Christmas and New Year's. He is hopeful that means his wife's face will be on the packages. "That's why she had agreed to have pictures taken right up to the end," said Mr. Tarbox. "She wanted to make sure people knew the ugly truth."
But the anti-tobacco lobby is afraid the timing of the call suggests the new strategy will be unveiled during the holidays, a period when governments often make unpopular announcements because they assume Canadians are not paying attention.
"We have two fears," said Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association. "That there will be significant concessions made to the tobacco industry, especially in the size of the warnings, and that the announcement will be made at time designed to reduce criticism of the concessions."
Les Hagan, the executive director of the Alberta-based Action on Smoking and Health, said he too fears the announcement will come during the holidays.
"There may be a negative aspect of this story that they would prefer to get buried in the Christmas shuffle. That would be the size," said Mr. Hagan, whose group was one of those that signed the letter to Ms. Aglukkaq.
"Size does matter in the case of health warnings and Health Canada's own research shows that," he said. "They've spent well over $3-million in the development of new warnings, including a close examination of the size of those warnings and even looking at what other jurisdictions have done, and several [countries]now have warnings that are over 50 per cent in size."
Tim Vail, a spokesman for Ms. Aglukkaq, said Wednesday that no decision about an announcement had been made, except that it would be coming shortly.