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?

Not surprisingly, the big cigarette companies and their purchased front groups are fighting to keep menthol in cigarettes so they can keep hooking young smokers to replace customers who have quit or have died from using their products. 

How hard are they fighting?  No fewer than TWENTY-SEVEN tobacco lobbyists are now registered in Alberta—almost one for every provincial Cabinet minister.  Several of these lobbyists are political insiders and bagmen with deep roots in the governing party.  It remains to be seen how much influence these insiders will have on the Redford government which is also suing the big tobacco companies for $10 billion in healthcare costs resulting from the industry’s negligent and deceptive marketing practices.

Yes—you read that correctly.  The Alberta government is apparently taking advice from tobacco lobbyists on how to keep kids tobacco-free while at the same time suing their employers for “targeting youth and adolescents with…misrepresentations and deceptions” as declared in the government’s statement of claim against Big Tobacco.  Do you think that any of these “misrepresentations and deceptions” are being directed at Alberta Cabinet ministers?  Is nicotine addictive?

From a public health perspective, a flavourings ban that excludes menthol cigarettes is like having a seatbelt law that excludes passenger vehicles.

Ironically, that’s exactly what the federal government did when it introduced the Cracking Down on Tobacco Marketing Aimed at Youth Act in 2009.  “Cracking down” of course did not apply to the single largest flavoured tobacco product used by high school students.  Nor did “cracking down” apply to flavoured smokeless tobacco or flavoured waterpipe tobacco which kids are also using in large number—especially in Alberta.

The so-called “crack down” didn’t even properly tackle flavoured cigarillos which actually made the short list of banned products.  Instead the Act contains a loophole that a 12 year old risk-taker could drive a truck through that simply requires cigarillo makers to exceed a 1.4 gram weight threshold to continue to sell candy-flavoured coffin nails.  Simply remove the acetate filter, replace it with more deadly and addictive tobacco, and presto!  Cigarillos now weigh at least 1.4 grams and are still available at your local corner store in all of the kid’s favourite flavours.

Will the Alberta government repeat the federal government’s blunder?  I certainly hope not.  However you can bet your last pack of menthols that the industry’s 27 registered lobbyists are working overtime to derail the provincial flavourings ban.

There is some dark comedy in this disturbing drama.  The various lobbyists seem to be pointing at each other as to whose product is most responsible for getting teens hooked.  The cigarillo lobbyists are pointing their fingers at menthol cigarettes and the cigarette lobbyists are pointing their fingers at flavoured cigarillos.  I am sure that the spit tobacco lobbyists are pointing their fingers at both.

This comedy reminds me of the hysterical movie Thank you for not smoking when the tobacco, alcohol and gun lobbyists were arguing over whose product is the most deadly.  The tobacco lobbyist won the argument of course.

The truth is that Alberta kids are using ALL flavoured tobacco products in droves according to the national Youth Smoking Survey.  Any meaningful attempt to reduce flavoured tobacco use among youth will not include any exemptions or loopholes. 

Let’s hope that the Redford government will learn from the Harper government’s blunder, will dismiss the “misrepresentations and deceptions” of the tobacco lobby and will do the right thing for Alberta kids.

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