Aug 18, 2010
OTTAWA – Tobacco companies can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to the delay of Health Canada’s plan to force them to increase the size of health warnings to cover most of the surface of cigarette packages.
Health Canada shared mock-ups of supersized new warning labels with public-health advocates more than a year ago – with regulations that were expected to be tabled in January to increase the warning size from their current 50 per cent to at least 70 per cent of the package’s surface.
The larger, more graphic images would also be accompanied by a national toll-free quit line.
Even industry appeared resigned to the fact that changes were coming, despite companies maintaining that the government should be focused on the illegal cigarette market, where cigarettes are sold without any health warnings or safeguards against youth access.
Last September, a senior executive for Imperial Tobacco Canada told an audience in Sao Paulo, Brazil, of pending Canadian regulations to increase graphic warning labels. But months have since passed, and the file is stalled.
“We know the department is completely ready to do the last stages of the regulatory process, and the indications that we had received that this would be happening by now have been withdrawn,” said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.
“We haven’t been told why it’s been withdrawn. It seems to have disappeared into a big black hole in the centre of government. We’re concerned in part because of the mystery around why things aren’t moving forward.”
Health Canada settled on bigger warnings and updated visuals after its own public-opinion research showed many smokers had dulled to the government’s graphic messages covering half the panel on cigarette packs, introduced in Canada in 2000 as an international first.
Independent research pointed to the same trend, showing a decline in salience of warning labels in Canada over time.
“After 10 years, there’s a phenomenon called wear-out of warning labels. With advertising or any kind communication, if you repeat the same communications over and over again, then it starts losing its effect,” said Geoff Fong, professor of psychology and health studies at the University of Waterloo, and lead researcher for the collaborative International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project.
The official process to modernize Canada’s tobacco product labels began in August 2004, nearly four years after Canada became the first country in the world requiring tobacco companies to blanket half the pack with government-mandated graphic warning labels.
They include: a limp cigarette with the words, “Tobacco use can cause impotence;” a hospitalized man with the tagline “Cigarettes cause lung cancer;” and a close-up of a cancerous mouth with the line “Cigarettes cause mouth diseases.”
“The government’s been working on this for years now and there has been some very unfortunate and inexplicable delays in a new round of cigarette packaging warnings,” said Rob Cunningham, a tobacco control specialist at the Canadian Cancer Society.
“Other countries are leapfrogging over Canada in terms of the size and improved content,” he added, pointing out some of the 39 countries that followed Canada with warning labels are already on their second and third round of updates.
In a statement to Postmedia News, Health Canada said the department “continues to examine this issue” and “to review public-opinion research on the effectiveness of health-warning messages.
“The findings from this research will help Health Canada have messages that will be noticed and effective for all Canadians.”