Will the Notley government come through on menthol tobacco?

In 2013, the Alberta government became the first in North America to pass legislation to ban all forms of flavoured tobacco including menthol cigarettes.  The legislation was hailed widely by health groups across the continent and it was believed that implementation was imminent and unstoppable.

Enter the tobacco industry and its horde of well-paid lobbyists—some with very close ties to the levers of power.  Afraid of the possibility of Alberta’s ground-breaking law spreading to other jurisdictions, Big Tobacco registered two-dozen lobbyists to grind the implementation of the new legislation to a halt.

Once the legislation was successfully stalled, the industry set about to deliver a knock-out punch with the help of political friends in the Prentice government.  Last fall, former health minister Stephen Mandel announced that the new precedent-setting Alberta legislation would exempt menthol tobacco.

Health groups and opposition parties roundly criticized the Prentice government for caving in to big tobacco companies and selling out thousands of Alberta kids to addiction, disease and premature death.

Some of the harshest criticism came from the New Democrat opposition.  David Eggen called the decision a “triumph of friends and insiders” and declared that the legislation had been “sideswiped by lobbyists”.   Rachel Notley accused the health minister of working with tobacco lobbyists to rewrite the legislation.

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Why did the Alberta government choke on menthol?

Last month, the Alberta government announced that it will be banning almost all characterizing flavours in tobacco products effective June 1, 2015.  Unfortunately, the sole flavour to be exempted from this ban is menthol—the most harmful flavour additive and the most popular tobacco flavour among youth.

In addition to exempting everything menthol, the government also exempted flavoured pipe tobacco (including shisha) and flavoured cigars weighing more than 5 grams each and packaged to retail at $4.00 or more.  The shisha tobacco exemption is also disturbing because of the large and increasing number of youth that are now using waterpipes or hookahs.

To give credit where it is due, Alberta currently has the strongest restrictions on flavoured tobacco in Canada as emphasized by the new health minister Stephen Mandel. 

However by exempting anything menthol and flavoured waterpipe tobacco, the government missed a huge opportunity to protect thousands of Alberta youth from these dangerous and addictive protects.  These loopholes may result in more teens using menthol tobacco and flavoured shisha once the remaining flavoured products are removed from the market.

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Dear Premier Hancock: Put children first and proclaim Bill 206

Eight months have passed since the Legislative Assembly gave its near-unanimous all-party support to Bill 206.  If fully implemented, Bill 206 will protect thousands of Alberta youth from all flavoured tobacco products including menthol cigarettes.

Despite repeated assurances that the bill would be implemented swiftly, the bill continues to languish on the great forgotten heap of official but unimplemented provincial laws.

Thousands of Alberta youth have started using flavoured tobacco since Bill 206 was passed last November.  Many of these kids will wind up with a lifelong addiction to this deadly product.  One half of the kids who get hooked will die prematurely from tobacco use via cancer, heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease and other debilitating illnesses resulting from tobacco dependence.

Tobacco companies and their mob of provincial lobbyists are undoubtedly thrilled with the delay of Bill 206.  No doubt they are hoping that the bill will be stalled indefinitely or weakened to the point of futility.  No doubt they are busy working the backrooms and the barbeques to maintain their youth market.  No doubt they are all anticipating bonuses if Bill 206 is derailed or diluted.

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Imperial Tobacco makes a rare public appearance in Alberta

Canada’s largest supplier of the country’s leading avoidable cause of disease and premature death made a rare public appearance recently on Alberta Primetime.

To listen to Imperial Tobacco’s well-honed spokesperson, Eric Gagnon, you would almost believe that he just represents another legal business that is doing its best to deliver smooth satisfaction and lasting pleasure to its customers and shareholders.

After all, think of all the rules and regulations that Canadian tobacco companies are required to navigate in order to supply a huge market of millions of reluctant smokers who would like to quit but can’t. 

Never mind the fact it’s easier to get a new cancer-causing tobacco product on the market than a new cancer treatment.  And that it’s easier to purchase tobacco than to obtain a prescription to treat nicotine addiction.  Or that tobacco that is as widely available as bread and milk.

Poor Big Tobacco.  Oh the burden of marketing the only legal product that kills one-half of its long term users when used exactly as intended.  Oh the shame of watching thousands of teens getting addicted to your deadly products each year.  It’s too much for almost anyone to bear.  That is ALMOST anyone.

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Alberta’s low tax policy on tobacco is devastating

For generations, Albertans have experienced the lowest overall taxes in Canada.  This fiscal policy has become a defining characteristic of the province and part of the “Alberta Advantage” that has been promoted by provincial governments past and present.

However when this low tax policy is applied to tobacco products the result is devastating.  Any “advantage” that is to be derived from low tobacco taxes is completely undermined by higher smoking rates, increased illness and premature death, reduced productivity and greater demands on healthcare.  How does this policy provide Alberta with any competitive advantage?

Alberta presently has the most affordable cigarettes of any province as the result of low provincial taxes and high wages.  According to a recent report on tobacco affordability prepared by Alberta Health Services, it only took 38 minutes of labour for Albertans aged 15 to 24 to purchase a pack of 25 cigarettes in May 2013.  In B.C. and Saskatchewan it took 50 and 51 minutes of labour respectively to purchase 25 cigarettes.  In Manitoba it took 65 minutes of labour—the highest in Canada.

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Will Alberta’s new flavoured tobacco law have the desired effect?

Last fall, the Alberta Legislative Assembly approved new tobacco legislation that could have a profound effect on youth tobacco use.

Bill 206, sponsored by Calgary MLA Christine Cusanelli, provides the Alberta government with the regulatory authority to ban all flavoured tobacco products including menthol cigarettes.  The bill was originally sponsored by Lloydminster MLA Richard Starke who was required to hand off the bill to another MLA when he was appointed to Cabinet last year.

Bill 206 represents the strongest flavoured tobacco law in Canada if it is fully implemented.  “Fully implemented” is the big caveat and time will tell if the Alberta government will approve a full ban on all flavoured tobacco products or allow some flavoured tobacco to escape regulation.

The main item of contention is menthol cigarettes, which tobacco companies admit is the most popular flavoured tobacco product among high school students.  A recently released national survey of youth smoking (Canada’s largest) revealed that about 28,000 Alberta schoolchildren are using flavoured tobacco products and about one-half of these kids are using menthol cigarettes.  In sharp contrast, menthol cigarettes represent less than five percent of the adult cigarette market in Canada.

Menthol is arguably the most harmful flavouring of all due to its medicinal properties.  Menthol soothes the throat, opens the airways, and increases nicotine absorption into the bloodstream.  How better to get a fickle teen hooked for life?

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Action on Smoking & Health
ASH is Western Canada's leading tobacco control organization.