Note to MPs: Our kids are more important than your re-election

Fierce lobbying by Big Tobacco is threatening legislation aimed at cracking down on marketing to young people

Does the shamelessness of tobacco companies – and politicians for that matter – know no bounds?

After a summer of fierce lobbying by the tobacco giant Rothmans Benson & Hedges – namely, a threat to close a factory in Quebec City that employs 300 people – an important bit of health legislation is now at risk.

The Cracking Down on Tobacco Marketing Aimed at Youth Act, Bill C-32, has passed second reading in the House of Commons with the support of all the major political parties.

But now it’s stalled in the Senate, where an amendment to gut a key provision of the bill is being proposed, and the move has the backing of a powerful Quebec Conservative MP, Maxime Bernier. Amended or not, final passage of the bill could be threatened by these political machinations.

Honestly, how many times will we fall victim to the blackmail of tobacco companies? And how can our politicians be so naive as to buy into the illusory promises of job creation from a dying (not to mention lethal) industry?

Sure, there’s a federal election on the horizon. And, yes, the battle for the seats in the Quebec City area will be fierce.

But do our politicians – elected and non-elected – not have the decency and principles to say: “The lives of Canadian children are more important than a few jobs without a future – even in an election year.”

Let’s examine the provisions of Bill C-32, which will bring three important amendments to the Tobacco Act:

Prohibit the addition of fruit flavours and other additives such as vitamins or sugar that give a candy taste to cigarillos, cigarettes and blunts (sheets or tubes of tobacco).

Make it mandatory for cigarillos and blunts to be sold in minimum quantities of 20, like cigarettes, to eliminate so-called kiddie packs.

Remove the exception that allows tobacco ads in publications with an adult readership of at least 85 per cent.

This is a far cry from a tobacco ban and not exactly oppressive legislation.

The intent of the Cracking Down on Tobacco Marketing Aimed at Youth Act is to make tobacco products less accessible and less appealing to the most vulnerable segment of our population – young people.

About 18 per cent of Canadians older than 15 are regular smokers, according to the Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey. That number is falling. The only reason the industry has a future is that the highest rate is found among young adults, more than 28 per cent of whom smoke.

So why does the tobacco industry, which says it does not want to market or sell tobacco products to children and adolescents, object to the new rules?

The beef of Rothmans Benson & Hedges – 100-per-cent owned by international tobacco giant Philip Morris – is with the crackdown on additives.

There is little doubt that products such as banana-split flavoured “juicy double blunts” and pina colada cigarillos are designed to make a toxic product more appealing to a younger clientele, just as kiddie packs are designed to make the addiction more affordable.

But in their everyday legal poisoning of adults, tobacco manufacturers use flavouring products such as licorice, cocoa, vanilla and other additives to soften the bitter taste and mask the smell of tobacco.

By banning additives that give tobacco candy flavours, the legislation would also make it illegal for tobacco companies to use these more traditional flavourings in “American-blend” cigarettes winston, which are normally mixed with other substances to soften the taste. (Canadians are more accustomed to Virginia-style tobacco without the additives.)

Some senators are now considering an amendment to exempt non-candy-flavoured additives from the ban, saying they are not popular with young people so it will not detract from the goal of the legislation.

While that may be true, there are already exemptions in the law. Menthol, a long-time additive, is still permitted and the new rules do not apply to cigars without a plastic tip.

The remaining “American-blend” products are marginal. They make up only 0.5 per cent of the domestic Canadian market and 3 per cent of the duty-free market for tobacco, so the financial argument does not really hold up.

But the tobacco industry is fighting this part of Bill C-32 for a reason: It is looking for a loophole. And this industry has proved itself more than adept at exploiting loopholes over the years.

If the proposed amendment is accepted, manufacturers will still be allowed to use additives such as cocoa – and how long do you think it will be before they begin marketing “chocolate” cigarillos?

To pretend that this provision of the law will result in a massive curtailment of production at the Quebec City factory of Rothmans Benson & Hedges and job losses that could result in the plant closing is at best disingenuous. And to argue that without the legislation there might be an expansion of the plant is so fantastical that only a politician up for imminent re-election could believe it.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that it is true, that the plant’s future is threatened by the new law.

Tough. Our children are worth it.


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