Denormalisatie van tabaksproducten in Canada

Luc Martial heeft 10 jaar gewerkt in de anti-rokenbeweging in Canada. Hij heeft in de frontlinie gezeten van elke anti-tabakscampagne die door de Canadese overheid en anti-tabaksgroepen werd gevoerd.

Zo was hij medewerker van de Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, de meest agressieve pressiegroep in Canada, Data specialist en PR-manager van de Canadian Council on Smoking and Health, directeur van het National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health en beleidsmedewerker van het Tobacco Control Programme bij Health Canada.

Als een gewetensvol man nam hij in juni 2001 plotseling ontslag. Hij kon zich niet langer meer verenigen met de methodes en intriges die door een kleine groep lobbyisten werden gehanteerd. In zijn ogen kon het handelen van deze organisaties ethisch gezien niet meer door de beugel en leek het onderhand meer op een blauwdruk die te gebruiken is door dictators over de gehele wereld.


TJI: Canada has already served as a model for Brazil, which has also introduced graphic health warnings on cigarette packs.  A recent study in Canada claims that the warnings are effective means to reduce smoking.  What is your opinion?

Luc Martial: As with many other consumer products, there exists a certain level of risk associated with tobacco and its use.  Governments should therefore be expected, if not obligated, to inform and educate their constituencies as to these risks.  That seems quite fair and accountable.  But Canada’s new health warnings go beyond simply informing and educating consumers.  Aside from their intent to shame and ostracise the millions of Canadians who choose to smoke, this form of extreme messaging was designed for more self-serving purposes.

If the truth be told, it was Canada’s anti-tobacco elite which came up with the idea for our current ‘health’ warnings.  From design to development, the Government can take very little credit indeed.  While the anti-tobacco groups may deservingly take full credit in private meetings, allowing our Government to take full ‘public’ credit for the warnings plays well into their agenda.  While providing them with yet another opportunity to promote to the media and the general public (as well as unsuspecting foreign governments) a seemingly ‘unbiased’ well-researched and comprehensive review of a tobacco control issue, their efforts ideally provide them the public acceptance and funding leverage they so desperately need.

Canada’s new health warnings, along with our Government’s current fervour for banning cigarette descriptions such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’, represent the anti-tobacco groups’ strategy for eventually forcing the Government into regulating ‘plain’ (generic) packaging.  Having failed in their earlier attempts, they remain true to their motto: “If we can’t get them to do the right thing for the right reasons, then we’ll get them to do the right thing for the wrong reasons”. And so they continue pressing for generic packaging from every angle.  The only problem, of course, is that if the general public was truly informed and consulted they would likely largely disagree with what the ‘right thing’ actually is.  But why involve them?  They’ll only complicate things.

That Canada’s new health warnings have and will continue to impact labelling regulations world-wide is not unexpected.  The anti-tobacco groups recognise that securing and safeguarding aggressive domestic policies on tobacco requires sustainable and international pressures on our Government.  Convincing countries like Brazil that Canada has actually done its job, that the research and policy foundation necessary to meet our highest standards for introducing these regulations was effectively developed and that our new health warnings are warranted and successful is therefore a crucial element to their strategy.  What we will continue to witness is a leap-frog approach to tobacco control.  Introducing aggressive legislation in one country facilitates introduction in another.  In turn, foreign initiatives are used to pressure Canada into moving ahead on issues as a way to maintain its leadership status on tobacco control. Once domestic policies are in place, our tobacco control extremists assist other countries in securing their own policies on similar issues.  The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to be finalised in 2003, will provide extremists with the necessary tool to force governments world-wide into fast-tracking questionable policies and policy standards.

Because the necessary research foundation for developing and justifying Canada’s new health warnings was largely inadequate, the Government fast tracked the initiative through a consultation process which proved anything but meaningful, honest or accountable to Canadians.  This, of course, will not have been included in any promotional packages developed and forwarded by our anti-tobacco groups.  Having painted itself in a corner, our Government is equally unlikely to ever fess up.  Should push ever come to shove, Health Canada is likely to claim that it was simply following political orders.  So much for working on behalf of the public’s interest.

Despite what our courts may eventually uncover or their inevitable ruling on these regulations, Canada’s anti-tobacco groups have already filed this initiative as a major win.  To safeguard this win, they will need to continue developing and marketing unbiased survey data which ‘clearly’ identify a growing public acceptance for these warnings and their overall success in decreasing consumption.  Their current survey findings have likely travelled the world, promoting what a good job Canada is doing on tobacco control, how accurate our government’s instincts were in developing this form of messaging and finally, inciting other unsuspecting countries in justifying our badly developed policies by simply following suite.  While I will let survey experts speak to issues of methodology, my main concern from the offset has more to do with propriety.  For you see, the same organisation retained by the Canadian Government to provide the original research for the introduction of these labelling regulations, is now discretely developing the follow-up supportive data for the anti-tobacco groups.  How nice that they get to confirm their own findings.  And I wonder where the funding to do this work is coming from?  For an unsuspecting global audience, the illusion of a seemingly unbiased, wide-ranging and confirmed support for Canada’s new health warnings is maintained.

TJI: You once stated that tobacco control in Canada has become an industry (see TJI 6/2001). Can you please elucidate on the change it went through from being ‘a just cause’ to an industry, as you describe it?

In the 1970s, tobacco control organisations were essentially grass-root in nature, with little to no real funding or influential membership. The focus at that time was on ‘protecting’ non-smokers from second-hand smoke, although concerns regarding advertising and youth consumption were always on the table. By the 1980s, fringe groups realised that if their message was ever to have a voice, they would need to re-think their strategy. Accordingly, these groups aggressively began to build influential coalitions to lobby governments strategically. Through compromise and re-positioning, fringe groups significantly enhanced their efforts by associating themselves with more prominent, well-respected and politically influential national health organisations. This association afforded them media interest, public acceptance/funding and government influence which they never would have obtained otherwise.

Perhaps their first really big win came in the form of tobacco taxation. Fringe groups were the first to identify tobacco tax policy as a potentially important health lever for governments. Building upon original research from the US, they effectively developed and guided tobacco tax policies in Canada from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. Their success in selling the ‘everybody wins’ scenario to Canadian governments eventually led to their exporting their arguments and expertise abroad (as well as creating our tobacco contraband crisis of the early 1990s). Their success on subsequent legislative fronts led to an important realisation. Positioning themselves as principal sources of information on tobacco and health could have a tremendous impact on guiding the government’s overall agenda on tobacco. Having gone through a time when their efforts were less than welcomed or encouraged, the tobacco control community also began closely guarding their achievements within the government structure. Their focus now was as much on creating the necessary environment for their agenda to succeed, as it was on the health issue itself. And so this is why ‘denormalisation’ of industry and product is crucial to the ‘normalisation’ of their public presence and private agendas – at any cost.

By the 1990s, they were well-positioned, recognised and influential. Maintaining their presence on the file required the continual marketing of their ‘successes’ in Canada and world-wide. By all accounts, they have succeeded. They remain to this date the principal source of information to governments and the media on the tobacco retailing trade, the underground economy and the industry in general. Through their strategic membership on the Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control (MAC), they can be expected to further develop the ‘necessary’ research for future aggressive policy development in the areas of product modification, educational programming and tax policy. Through the MAC, the anti-tobacco groups have created the ultimate shell company, providing both shelter and sustainability for their agendas. A case in point: when the Government welcomed our newest Health Minister, the Hon. Anne McLellan, last January, Canada’s anti-tobacco groups were quick to issue a press release calling on the new Minister to maintain an aggressive position on the tobacco file. Citing the ‘expert’ recommendations provided by the Minister’s own Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control, the anti-tobacco groups confirmed their continued support and approval for the Government’s agenda. How nice when you can issue a press release supporting your agenda and confirming your own findings – ostensibly through an unbiased third party.

It is rather difficult to pinpoint when exactly tobacco control in Canada became an anti-tobacco industry. Perhaps it was when publicly funded advocates began to discretely contract out on the side, feeling rather underpaid from the public trust. Perhaps it was when they began accepting funding from pharmaceutical companies to sponsor conferences and advocacy initiatives aimed at increasing the market for cessation or alternative nicotine products. Perhaps it was that moment when honest, transparent and meaningful public consultation was considered a luxury (or uncontrollable variable, which governments and the anti-tobacco groups simply could no longer afford). Perhaps it was when governments finally decided to acquiesce to a powerful lobby, effectively serving political not public interests.

I can only speak about my personal experiences on the issue. My journey through significant postings within advocacy, national health community and federal government environments provided me with a truly comprehensive perspective on tobacco control, the players and their motives. Interestingly enough, most of the things I have ever heard the anti-tobacco groups or governments say about the tobacco industry and smokers, I’ve found to be true of themselves. When it became quite clear that tobacco control in Canada had become nothing more than a business, I did the only thing I could do as a responsible and committed professional. I left.

For my penance, I resigned what was essentially a comfortable, easy and well-paid position with the Federal Government. In hoping to bring public accountability to the issue, I also knowingly left behind a decade of professional friendships. For despite my continued commitment to responsible tobacco control, my former colleagues now consider me a traitor. Their backs effectively turned, I fully expect some form of character assignation to continue throughout my work on this file. But, then again, I’m sure it’s nothing personal… it’s just business.

TJI: The instruments tobacco control uses or calls for do not seem to have the desired effect – tax hikes, for example, lead to increased smuggling activities, and the effect of enlarged health warnings is so far questionable. Which solution would you suggest? What should responsible tobacco regulation look like, and which steps would be necessary from the various participants in this process (governments, tobacco control groups, cigarette manufacturers) to achieve sensible regulation that works?

First, I disagree with the statement that these initiatives have not had the desired effect. From an anti-tobacco perspective, the desired effect of all these initiatives has always been to denormalise tobacco products, smokers and the industry – to the point where a usually responsible government, media and general public will blindly accept less than accountable public policy. Since Canada has positioned itself as the leader in developing questionable policy on tobacco, I would have to say that the desired effect has been achieved.

As one example, tobacco tax hikes in Canada led to our shameful and avoidable smuggling crisis in the early 1990s. At that time, governments revelled in the arguments and support provided by the national health community. Taxing tobacco brought in much needed and easy revenue while significantly reducing youth consumption. Tobacco taxes were essentially seen as the silver bullet. Unfortunately, as with every initiative since, governments failed to undertake the necessary research foundation to justify and advance responsible tobacco tax policy. And so, not surprisingly, they were ill-prepared to deal with the issue of smuggling when it surfaced.

To this day, Canadian governments have failed to undertake comprehensive and country-specific research on the optimal pricing of tobacco products in Canada. Optimal pricing research would, of course, look to identifying at which (prior) point legal sales would simply begin to shift to illegal or foreign/secondary markets. Interestingly enough, anti-tobacco groups who have been aggressively lobbying our government for the return of contraband-inducing tax increases are effectively set to develop this expert research for the government – through the MAC (see TJI 1/2002). I wonder what their findings will show? In the end, I believe that bad policy development results in bad policy. Responsible tobacco control requires fair, open and actual debate on the issue. Smokers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, unions and every other legitimate stakeholder should have a level playing field when it comes to voicing their concerns and sharing their knowledge and expertise on the issue. Unfortunately, in my experience, they have never had such an opportunity. Repeatedly failing to meet its own internal standards for effective policy development, the Canadian Government has continually approached consultation with industry stakeholders very much as an afterthought.

Responsible management of the file would require that the Government did its job properly – plain and simple – that they proactively afford the same opportunities to all stakeholders, not just anti-tobacco groups. Public funding under the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy, for example, should be equally accessible to smokers’ rights and/or civil rights groups working on the issue. Partnerships with retailers and distributors in the area of enforcement, education and monitoring should also be proactively sought an encouraged by governments. But the environment created by the anti-tobacco groups is certainly not conducive to this ever happening. And so, legitimate stakeholders are left twisting in the wind and fending for themselves, as their governments have fallen prey to the Patti Hearst syndrome. Now in cahoots with their kidnappers, Government has long since forgotten its true identity and subsequently, its obligations to the people they were elected to serve. Unquestionably, what the industry is now witnessing is a result of years of underestimating the anti-tobacco groups and overestimating governments.

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  • "Es ist schwieriger, eine vorgefaßte Meinung zu zertrümmern als ein Atom."
    (Het is moeilijker een vooroordeel aan flarden te schieten dan een atoom.)
    Albert Einstein

  • "Als je alles zou laten dat slecht is voor je gezondheid, dan ging je kapot"
    Anonieme arts

  • "The effects of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn't worry me."
    Sir Richard Doll, 2001

  • "Een leugen wordt de waarheid als hij maar vaak genoeg wordt herhaald"
    Joseph Goebbels, Minister van Propaganda, Nazi Duitsland

  • "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
    Mahatma Gandhi

  • "There''s no such thing as perfect air. If there was, God wouldn''t have put bristles in our noses"
    Coun. Bill Clement

  • "Better a smoking freedom than a non-smoking tyranny"
    Antonio Martino, Italiaanse Minister van Defensie

  • "If smoking cigars is not permitted in heaven, I won't go."
    Mark Twain

  • I've alllllllways said that asking smokers "do you want to quit?" and reporting the results of that question, as is, is horribly misleading. It's a TWO part question. After asking if one wants to quit it must be followed up with "Why?" Ask why and the majority of the answers will be "because I'm supposed to" (victims of guilt and propaganda), not "because I want to."
    Audrey Silk, NYCCLASH