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.

About 6,500 Alberta youth are currently using menthol cigarettes and about 7,100 are using flavoured shisha (waterpipe) tobacco.  Shisha has become increasingly popular among youth in recent years.  The number of Alberta youth using flavoured waterpipe tobacco now exceeds the number using menthol cigarettes or flavoured smokeless tobacco.

Shortly after the Alberta government announced the menthol exemption, the Ontario government introduced a new bill that will ban almost all flavoured tobacco including menthol flavoured products.  The bill is expected to be approved in the spring of 2015.  Nova Scotia is also planning to bring a new bill forward in the spring that will likely include a ban on menthol tobacco.

A number of arguments have been used to defend the Alberta government’s menthol exemption. 

One such argument is that menthol is an “adult” flavour that is used by a substantial number of adults. 

However according to the latest International Tobacco Control Survey, only 1 in 25 Canadian adult smokers are using menthol cigarettes.  This ratio contrasts sharply with the 1 in 3 Canadian youth smokers that are using menthol cigarettes according to the latest national Youth Smoking Survey.  Ironically, the vast majority of the 1 in 25 adult smokers who use menthol cigarettes got hooked as adolescents who were attracted to menthol cigarettes.

In recent years, the Alberta government has approved measures that affected almost every smoker in the province such as the province-wide smoking ban in 2008 and tobacco tax increases in 2007 and 2009.  However when it comes to menthol tobacco, it appears that the provincial government has been paralyzed by 1 in 25 smokers representing less than one percent of the total population.   I hope that the paralysis is temporary.

Another argument used to defend the menthol exemption is that “rural Albertans and MLAs don’t support a menthol ban”.  However two separate provincial public opinion polls conducted by Ipsos-Reid and Leger Research have revealed that public support for a menthol ban is just as strong outside of Edmonton and Calgary as it is in the big cities.  Rural MLA Dr. Richard Starke (Lloydminster) introduced Bill 206 with the backing of numerous rural and urban MLAs.  There is little evidence of a rural MLA revolt on menthol.  If I was a rural MLA I would be deeply offended by the suggestion that rural MLAs don’t want to protect kids from menthol tobacco. 

We’ve also heard the argument that adults should be able to choose their poison even if it is mint flavoured.  However this argument completely overlooks society’s responsibility to protect a vulnerable population (youth) from a lethal and addictive product. 

Menthol increases nicotine addiction among youth by making tobacco more appealing and palatable.  Menthol soothes the throat, opens the airways and facilitates nicotine absorption into the bloodstream.  Youth menthol smokers smoke more cigarettes that non-menthol smokers and menthol smokers have a harder time quitting.  If lawn darts can be banned to protect youth, surely the government can ban something as lethal as menthol tobacco to keep kids tobacco-free.

Menthol smokers can easily substitute cough drops, mints or gum if they really need menthol when smoking.  This substitution would easily satisfy the legal principal of minimal impairment.  There is no need to lace a lethal and addictive product with a fresh-tasting anesthetic—especially one that attracts children and adolescents.

Yet another argument we’ve heard is that a menthol ban will create an illegal market for menthol tobacco.  However this concern did not stop the Alberta government from banning all other flavourings. 

Alberta has the strongest anti-smuggling regulations of any province and the smallest relative contraband market.  According to Canada’s largest tobacco company, Imperial Tobacco, contraband tobacco represents less than two percent of Alberta’s total tobacco market.  This ratio was recently confirmed by Alberta Finance.

Even a whopping 130 percent increase in tobacco taxes approved by the Klein government in 2002 did not spark a meaningful increase in contraband in Alberta.  It is highly unlikely that a product that represents less than five percent of the total tobacco market will create an illegal market, especially when menthol substitutes are readily available everywhere cigarettes are sold.

So why did the Alberta government choke on menthol?

Perhaps they just didn’t have all of the facts despite the concerted efforts of health groups to inform and educate the public and MLAs about menthol and other flavoured tobacco products.

Perhaps they had good intentions and they sincerely but incorrectly felt that a menthol exemption would cause more harm than good.

Or perhaps the tobacco companies and their full-court press of over 20 lobbyists convinced some key government officials that a menthol ban was a bad idea. 

I sincerely hope that it was not the latter.

And I sincerely hope that this decision will not stick for the sake of thousands of Alberta youth who remain unprotected from flavoured tobacco products.

The government has changed its mind on numerous occasions and I hope that it has the courage to change its mind on menthol tobacco.

Alberta youth deserve first-class protection from all flavoured tobacco products including menthol tobacco.

We simply cannot allow tobacco companies to target youth with menthol tobacco or to dictate public health in Alberta.

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