Canada turns up the heat on smoking

Warnings: Canadians will have a clear picture of the evils of smoking every time they pick up a pack of cigarettes.

July 12, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,SUN STAFF

Blunt messages on the sides of cigarette packs, such as "cigarettes can kill you" and "cigarettes cause cancer," just aren't blunt enough, apparently. At least for Canada.

As of January, it will be impossible to pick up a pack of cigarettes north of the border without being confronted by graphic images of damaged hearts, diseased gums, cancerous lungs and flaccid cigarettes suggesting impotence. New regulations recently passed by the federal government require all cigarettes sold in the country - imports included - to carry the explicit images, which will cover 50 percent of every package's back and front.

Until now, simple written warnings resembling those on cigarette packs sold in the United States have been voluntary in Canada. The new art-enhanced warnings, though, will be compulsory and have led the Canadian tobacco industry to fight back. On July 5, cigarette manufacturers Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. and RJR-Macdonald Inc., two of three cigarette companies operating in Canada, filed a legal challenge to the regulations.

Norman Brown, a policy adviser for Health Canada, the country's federal department of health, was involved in drafting the new regulations. He had little to say about the pending litigation but offered his thoughts on the government's new hard-line approach to battling a habit that each year kills 45,000 Canadians - and nearly 10 times as many of their U.S. neighbors.

This new warning campaign seems to have gotten a big response. Has Canada always been tougher than other countries on the tobacco industry?

We have some of the strictest, hardest-hitting regulations in the world. Canada will be the first country in the world to require that health-warning messages [cover] 50 percent of all tobacco packages. We will be the first to employ the use of both graphics and colors in our messages. We recognize tobacco use as the No. 1 public health issue in Canada today. Canada has adopted some of the toughest, most effective anti-tobacco legislation in the Western world. It enables us to regulate tobacco as a product, to limit tobacco advertising drastically and to prohibit access to tobacco to persons under the age of majority.

So why the graphic campaign? What's the philosophy behind it?

I think it was clear to us through different analyses that the voluntary messages were no longer as effective as they had been. They'd been on [packages] for quite a few years and basically were wearing out. Our research showed that a larger message was more effective. We also determined that the cigarette package was the No. 1 way to reach our target audiences, mainly being smokers, but also those being in the immediate environment of smokers - their family, their friends, who would also be affected by secondary smoke.

You have other mechanisms for reaching people, but the cigarette package is in their hands every day. Every time they light up a cigarette that package is in their hand, in front of them.

Are pictures of gum disease or limp cigarettes really going to be more effective than text warnings?

Through our studies, a lot of people indicated that the so-called "scare tactic" would have an effect on them, would make them reconsider. It's obviously graphic imagery of the effects on their health of smoking, but also, we've created a package of information. We have the health warning message on the exterior of the cigarette packages. On the inside, we have a health information message, which is information about helpful tips on quitting. We try not to victimize the tobacco user. We offer encouraging words and a Web site [] to which they can go and receive more information on cessation and more information about cigarette use.

Were there other images that were considered and rejected?

I believe we looked at many more images. But we put together a scientific advisory panel, and it was decided that we would use a series equally displaying a rotation of 16 messages. All 16 will appear on all brands of cigarettes in equal display. They represent four general categories: addiction, diseases, children and secondary smoke.

Can we expect to see more of the same tactics elsewhere - billboards or television spots, for example?

I don't know at this point. Certainly this will be part of an ongoing, overall strategy ... but I don't know how that will unfold.

Do you expect cigarette companies ultimately will cooperate with the new regulations?

We are certainly continuing to meet and consult with them through what we're calling the transition year, to help interpret questions they may have about the content of the regulations and their requirements. We're not dealing with this with a big stick. We're trying to do it in a cooperative manner.

You can't help but think that for some people, the packages might hold a certain kitsch appeal. I wondered if you considered the possibility they could become ...

Trading cards?

Yes, or maybe show up on eBay.

Well, it's sort of good news-good news. If you see a parallel to baseball trading cards, from what I remember, people are into these baseball cards; they know every statistic. They know those cards inside out. If people treat these messages in the same manner and absorb the content over time, I think that would help our purpose and our goals incredibly. I don't think that would belittle the importance of what's on the packages or in the messages. It would just help to further the exposure.

So that might be a good thing.

I think so.

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