Mind & Body

Canada shifts gears in smoking policy

 | December 8, 2010

Despite the support of provincial health ministers, Health Canada has decided not to revamp its anti-smoking label campaign.

The revamped campaign would’ve included a 1-800 hotline and a website on the updated labels to assist smokers who want to quit. The government also planned to use bigger and more graphic images on the labels.

In 2000, Canada mandated tobacco companies put graphic photos on cigarette packs warning about the dangers of smoking.

Initial research following the implementation of the labels showed they were effective in informing smokers about the hazards of smoking and has affected their behaviour towards quitting.

“In 2007, 52 per cent of adult smokers reported the health warnings have been effective in increasing their desire to quit or in getting them to attempt to quit (43 per cent) and  smoke less (40 per cent),” said Gary Holub, spokesperson for Health Canada.

“From 1965 to the year 2000, we always had approximately six million smokers in this country,” said Veda Peters, tobacco issues educator from the B.C. Lung Association. “Then in the year 2000, graphic warnings were introduced. And since the year 2000, we’ve had a net loss of just over a million smokers, which I think is fairly significant.”

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced in a private meeting this year that resources will be used to stop contraband cigarettes instead of renewing the warning labels.

An e-mail statement sent from Aglukkaq’s office states: “Health Canada continues to examine the renewal of health warning messages on tobacco packaging but isn’t ready to move forward at this time.”

Ironically, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in November that it’s adopting graphic health warnings on cigarette packages just like Canada did 10 years ago.

Although cigarette packages in Canada will continue to carry health warning labels, the fact that these haven’t been changed in 10 years means they’re less effective.

“It’s been 10 years, and what kind of message doesn’t get boring after that length of time?” asked Peters. “It just needs updating.”

The labels’ effectiveness decreases significantly over time as evidenced by survey results. A Health Canada survey released in 2008 showed that 57 per cent of smokers were unmoved by the anti-smoking warnings, up by five percentage points from five years earlier.

The only consolation is that B.C. has anti-smoking programs and resources that potential quitters can fall back on.

“We know that the average smoker can take up to six, seven or maybe eight times to try to quit in order to stay quit,” said Peters. “Even if we’ve moved somebody from along the lines of ‘I love this’ to ‘I really ought to give this up’ then I think that’s successful.”