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Canada should adopt plain packaging rules despite what Big Tobacco says

A render of two isolated blank packs of cigarettes

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In recent days, Canada's tobacco industry has launched a massive advertising campaign – including a full page ad in The Globe and Mail – attacking the federal government's plan to introduce plain packaging rules for cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The industry campaign urges Canada to "not repeat Australia's failed experiment," and makes three principal arguments:

  • Plain packaging will increase contraband and cost taxpayers;
  • Branding helps consumers and removing branding will not reduce smoking;
  • The new law violates companies’ intellectual property rights.

Each and every one of these points is utter rubbish.

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Australia was the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging rules, in 2011. While Australia was a pioneer to introduce legislation, plain packaging is an idea conceived by two Canadian anti-smoking stalwarts, Garfield Mahood and David Sweanor, way back in 1986.

(Plain packaging laws essentially ban the use of logos, brand imagery, symbols and promotional text on tobacco products, replacing them with drab colouring – usually olive – and graphic health warnings.)

The initiative has been so successful that it is being copied by numerous countries around the world.

The tactics in Canada – the fear-mongering, fabrication and advertising blitz – is identical to what happened in Australia. It should encourage, not discourage, Canada to plow ahead.

"When we first announced our plans, the industry was howling," Nicola Roxon, Australia's former health minister, said in an interview. "In fact, they were so antagonized and antagonistic we knew we were on to something."

Ms. Roxon, who is now chair of Cancer Council Australia and in Canada at the invitation of the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control, will meet a number of politicians, public-health officials and consumer groups to share her experiences.

She bears many scars from her battles with Big Tobacco, but notes that, in the end, plain packaging was the right thing to do because it worked.

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A post-implementation review of the law, conducted by the Australian Department of Health, is enough to give any tobacco industry executive (or shareholder) nightmares.

The number of daily smokers dropped to 12.8 per cent in 2013 from 15.1 per cent in 2010 – the largest decrease in three decades.

Mind you, plain packaging was part of a broader set of anti-tobacco measures but a more in-depth analysis estimated that the packaging changes alone resulted in 108,000 fewer smokers. (And Australia's population is about 23 million compared with Canada's 35 million.)

So, did plain packaging increase smuggling, as industry claims?

No, it did not, according to impartial analysis. The "proof" that smuggling increased 21 per cent that is cited in industry ads is actually from a survey whose methodology is laughable.

A standard pack of cigarettes costs about $25 in Australia, compared with $12 in Canada; it is high taxes smugglers are trying to circumvent; they don't care what packages look like.

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The notion that the government is robbing the tobacco business of its intellectual property is ridiculous. Selling death in brightly coloured "come hither" packaging is not a constitutional right.

The arguments that the "nanny state" is oppressing freedom have been dismissed by the highest courts in both Australia and Great Britain and they will be in Canada, too.

Finally, will plain packaging legislation prove costly to government/taxpayers as claimed?

According to the Australian analysis, the new law will cost government $12.7-million over 10 years. It will result in health savings of $273-million.

Case closed.

There is no doubt plain packaging discourages smoking – particularly among younger people. It's good for public health and for the economy.

This is the plain truth the tobacco industry doesn't want you to hear. Their tactics are obvious.

"The strategy of industry is to muddy the waters, to create diversions," Ms. Roxon said. "It is undeniable that smoking is dangerous and needs to be made less attractive, and that's the discussion they don't want us to have."

Ms. Roxon, who endured years of fearsome attacks from industry and was dubbed "Nanny Nicola," has some practical advice for politicians in Canada who are about to face the same: "Stay focused. Don't be distracted by the claims of an industry that has a history of deception."

And for the public: "Don't be taken for mugs."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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