Feds under fire over health warnings on cigarette packages

OTTAWA — Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer blasted Health Canada Thursday for unilaterally suspending a plan to update health warnings on cigarette packages that were scheduled to be rolled out this month.

Parliamentarians probing why the Conservative government has to date, failed to follow through on a long-running plan to force tobacco companies to put larger, more graphic health warnings on cigarette packs also heard that Health Canada staff had a plan all set to go to draft new regulations.

Canada has dropped dramatically in an international ranking of cigarette package health warnings after snagging top spot a decade ago. Canada now ranks 15th alongside 18 other countries.

Canada has dropped dramatically in an international ranking of cigarette package health warnings after snagging top spot a decade ago. Canada now ranks 15th alongside 18 other countries.

However the health minister’s office sent the department experts back to the drawing board to plot a social media strategy to target youth.

“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,” said Dr. Robert Strang of Nova Scotia’s Department of Health.

“One has to wonder what role the tobacco industry played in the decision to not move ahead with the renewal of health warning labels on tobacco packages. After all, their historic tactics are delay, distract and distort, and it is known they access and include,” said Strang, who travelled to Ottawa to deliver on Thursday the blunt message to MPs on the House of Commons health committee.

Health Canada documents, introduced earlier this week at the parliamentary committee, show the department has spent $3.6 million since 2004 to update health warnings on cigarette packages.

Most of the money has been spent on public-opinion research, which has consistently showed Canadian smokers, particularly older ones, have dulled to the old graphics, first introduced in 2001 and that larger, more graphic images were needed to curb smoking.

Another $496,000 was transferred to the provinces to develop a national quit line to appear on cigarette packs alongside health warnings covering 75 per cent of the panel’s surface — up from the current level of 50 per cent.

The quit line was a priority of provincial health officials, who were informed by Health Canada in August that there would be no action on the file for the foreseeable future.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq reiterated this message to provincial health ministers in September at a ministerial meeting. Aglukkaq informed them the federal government would be focusing on cracking down on contraband cigarettes. She has since emphasized the importance of developing a social media strategy to try to reach young people.

The records introduced at committee, which includes a log of stakeholder meetings about the government’s tobacco labelling renewal project, show Health Canada informed Imperial Tobacco of “suspended regulatory projects” and its contraband strategy months earlier during a private meeting in May.

That represented a significant shift in position from the previous fall, according to anti-tobacco advocates who also testified Thursday at the parliamentary committee. In September 2009, Health Canada showed the groups 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,” Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, 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 added that, “virtually everyone at Health Canada” knows updating the health warnings “must be done.” He also testified 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. 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.

Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs also piled on, accusing the government of bowing to pressure from tobacco companies.

“I simply can’t understand why the machinery of the government of Canada can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I just don’t get it,” Bloc youth critic Nicolas Dufour told Health Canada officials, who emphasized a renewed focus on social media strategies to be developed alongside updated health warnings.

source: Postmedia News

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