MEMOIRS OF A RELUCTANT ADVOCATE:
AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT OF TOBACCO CONTROL IN CANADA
by: Luc Martial
The only professional worldwide to have comprehensively worked on the issue from within advocacy, national health community and government environments, Luc Martial has been at the forefront of every significant tobacco control campaign in Canada over the last decade. He has successfully laboured as a government lobbyist and policy analyst with the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (Canada’s most aggressive advocacy group on the issue), as a Data Specialist and Public Affairs Manager with the Canadian Council on Smoking and Health, as the Director of the National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health and as an Evaluator for both the Office of Research, Surveillance and Evaluation and the Office of Policy and Planning within the Tobacco Control Programme at Health Canada. In June of 2001, Mr. Martial abruptly resigned his posting with the Government of Canada. As an independent consultant, Mr. Martial now works on behalf of legitimate industry stakeholders in bringing much needed accountability to the issue and legitimacy to the process.
I happened upon a vignette of past U.S. Congressional Hearings on tobacco, the other day. As part of a television program on the evils of both product and industry, portions of the Waxman Hearings were replayed as sound bites emphasized the awkwardness of U.S. tobacco executives testifying on the issue. As I did when I first witnessed the hearings a few years prior, I felt sick to my stomach. I was never impressed nor proud of this exhibition. No answer would have sufficed or mitigated this very public stoning and I was as ashamed then of being in tobacco control. This end-justifying-the-means approach to the issue, this winning-at-any-cost which continues to permeate the environment and motivate their actions, never found reason in me.
When I first joined the ranks of tobacco control advocates in 1991, the issue was quite straightforward. The environment was very exciting and the opportunities to affect positive social change seemed endless. Tobacco control as a profession within the health community and even government, for the most part, I felt was quite honourable. But that was then.
After ten years at the forefront of every significant tobacco control campaign in Canada; after ten years of researching, testifying, presenting and interviewing on everything from tobacco taxation and smuggling to smoking bans; after ten years of war room campaigns, impromptu press conferences and legislative reforms; after ten years of having witnessed the evolution of tobacco control from within advocacy, health community and government environments; I had come to a standstill in my career. It had become quite clear that tobacco control in Canada had moved away from being a legitimate health issue and was now becoming an industry.
The question I am most often asked is why did you quit? Or why did you switch sides? Suffice to say that I did not quit the issue. I am still very much interested in responsible tobacco control. I could simply no longer personally and professionally justify much of what I was doing or being asked to do. As for this sides nonsense, experience has taught me that responsible tobacco control in Canada will only be achieved when governments begin to work in meaningful partnership with industry stakeholders, not despite them.
My resignation from Government was a last straw, my admitting defeat in not being able to affect the necessary changes from the inside and in the end, my unwillingness to sacrifice principle over security of employment.
My decision to pursue the issue and work on behalf of legitimate industry stakeholders, was not an easy one. Aside from costing me all of the professional friendships I had developed over the last decade and a certain financial security for my family, the industry lore was equally unsettling. The myths surrounding industry behaviour and tactics, many of which I am as guilty of playing into for the past decade, would now come to haunt me. I was not completely sure of what I would find and certainly not interested in saying or doing things that I did not believe in. After all, that’s why I left my last job. So imagine my relief when I actually looked under the bed and then behind the closet door to find no monsters. What I found have been honest, hard-working and law-abiding businessmen and women, overwhelmed by a system that has vilified them and betrayed by government agendas which have unquestionably been hijacked by anti-tobacco groups.
For the record, my position on smoking has always been the same. I believe, that as with many other consumer products, there is a certain level of risk associated with the use of tobacco and that many Canadians knowingly accept these risks and choose to smoke. And they do so as a way to relax, to socialize, to express themselves and to live their lives the way they choose to live it. I also recognize that tobacco is a legitimate health issue, of concern to many other Canadians. Therefore, any legislative or regulatory initiative on tobacco should be developed within a framework of mutual respect between smokers and non-smokers and certainly as a result of truly meaningful consultation with all stakeholders. Anything short of this is tantamount to social engineering.
Tobacco Control in Canada
Understanding the current management of the issue in Canada, requires an understanding of the key players. In a very real sense, understanding who effectively controls tobacco-control.
Without question, the anti-tobacco groups in Canada have successfully managed to increasingly develop and guide government action on tobacco control. Well-seasoned, skilled and funded from the Public Trust, anti-tobacco advocates know how to turn losses into winnings.
The tobacco taxation fiasco of the early 1990s is a perfect example. Convincing governments that aggressive tax policy was a win-win situation, their campaigns resulted in the criminalization of the average citizen. Although Canadian governments eventually admitted their mistake and repealed their excessive taxation policies, the damage had been done and a country had been desensitize to an underground economy (the repercussions of which remain to this day).
Despite such tried, tested and failed approaches to tobacco control, anti-tobacco groups have somehow managed to retain ownership of the file in Canada. They continue to leverage their influence in successfully pressuring governments in introducing even more excessive and unnecessarily punitive regulations. At the federal level, anti-tobacco groups have recently managed to secure stewardship of a significant portion of the new $480 million (CDN) federal strategy funding dedicated to mass media campaigns. Such campaigns will undoubtedly be focussed on denormalizing both the product and the industry. Denormalization campaigns are extremely important for anti-tobacco groups, as they greatly assist them in “normalizing” their own strategies, tactics and behaviour within the public arena, allowing them to advance their business agendas before governments.
But where do these groups come from, how have they become so good at what they do and why are governments so easily influenced?
The fact that they are well paid from the Public Trust to continually sharpen their lobbying skills and promote aggressive campaigns targeted at anything tobacco, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, is one reason. Anti-tobacco advocates are extremely committed to their cause and relentless in their pursuit of a tobacco-free society. Through Canada’s recently announced Federal Tobacco Control Strategy and WHO’s evolving Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), anti-tobacco-groups in Canada have essentially become armed an dangerous. I would challenge any of them to forgo public money and find support within their own constituencies. The simple fact is that they would not be in business for long.
Anti-tobacco groups also tirelessly work towards securing and maintaining social acceptability for their actions. Recognizing a long time ago, that their efforts needed a more publicly receptive voice, they began aggressively lobbying well-respected national and international health organizations for their support and partnership. This ground work, developed more so over the last 15 years, now affords them a tangible influence with governments and certainly provides them with a crucial level of public acceptance which they would have never had otherwise. Their ability to bring to the table an impressive slate of national health organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Medical Association (to name a few), as well as international organizations such as the World Health Organization, assures them media and therefore government interest in their efforts. While many of these organizations often cringe at their tactics, they nonetheless have a responsibility to their own constituencies to do something, anything on tobacco and the anti-tobacco groups are all too willing to deliver a “win” for them.
Government, for its part, in its quest to deliver a comprehensive action plan on a very real health file; to publicly downplay and justify its significant tobacco tax revenues; and to maintain its international leadership on a very political issue, look to these old war horses for direction, action and support.
Unfortunately, one of many overwhelming weaknesses in Government is that there is simply no ownership of the issue. Ownership, as a by-product of interest, knowledge, experience and commitment to a particular issue, is crucial to ensuring and safeguarding accountability and legitimacy within the management process. The necessary elements to encourage ownership of tobacco control, within Government, simply do not exist at this time. And so…what kind of house do you build when you know nothing of architecture, are not interested in construction and have absolutely no flair for design?
Can things change? Yes. The Canadian Government must simply heed its own policy regarding shared stewardship and responsibility, especially when it comes to tobacco control. As things stand, there is currently a serious lack of meaningful consultation with legitimate industry stakeholders and the general public. The government environment is extremely hostile to anything or anyone connected to tobacco products. As a result, industry stakeholders are dismissed out-of-hand; legitimate offers to partner on industry programs and research initiatives are ignored out-right; and the industry as a whole is effectively set-up to fail.
I would wager that most Canadians, like myself, believe that tobacco should without question be regulated but not at the expense of perverting the democratic process. I’ll solve the mystery for you: a tobacco control strategy based on marginalizing legitimate stakeholders, vilifying manufacturers, retailers and distributors, criminalizing ordinary citizens; shocking the media and shaming legal consumers into submission…..will work. But it’s not the Canadian way. And it’s certainly not what Canadian governments should be blindly exporting to other countries as a model for action on tobacco.
Where to from here?
Outwit, Outplay and Outlast…that sums up what tobacco control has become in our society and certainly reflective of what we’ve witnessed in Canada. And while this may be fine for a prime time game show like Survivor, when it comes to tobacco and health… the debate should be anything but a game and stakeholders anything but contestants. Should there be fair, straightforward and meaningful dialogue on the issue…certainly. Has there been fair, straightforward and meaningful dialogue to date?…certainly not. And for all of their efforts in denouncing the tobacco industry, anti-tobacco groups, the health community and yes, even governments have all been less than exemplary in their management of this particular file.
In their zeal to regulate the industry out of existence, anti-tobacco groups (with the unsuspecting assistance of Canadian governments) have strategically positioned the issue as black or white. You’re either for tobacco or for health, and there is no acceptable compromise. But over-regulation of tobacco in Canada is not an indicator of how dangerous the product is, but more so of how dangerous the management process has become.
On the eve of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and on the heels of Canada’s newly announced half billion dollar federal strategy, the tobacco control issue in Canada is set to complete its industrial metamorphosis. The simple fact is that the Canadian government is currently ill-equipped to manage this change and will in the end hold itself and other countries hostage to a process and program it will have allowed anti-tobacco groups to conceive, develop and promote world-wide.
The FCTC will in the end greatly assist in defending Canada’s currently indefensible process for managing tobacco control, while assisting anti-tobacco groups in securing much needed funding and leverage for their future and even more aggressive international efforts. This end-justifying-the-means approach to tobacco control has unfortunately become the Canadian way.