The light and Mild deception


Submitted by: Luc Martial
Submitted to: The National Post

January 14, 2002

The issue of “light” and “mild” descriptors on cigarette packs is a tale of deception and public manipulation, perhaps best revealed through internal documentation, private agendas and secret meetings. But who’s deceiving who? You decide.

The Issue

Tobacco control extremists in Canada have long pressured the Government to move towards generic (plain) packaging. The removal of light and mild descriptors on cigarette packs is but one step towards this objective and their ultimate goal of banning tobacco altogether. Having recently been handed the keys to the Government agenda, through their appointment to the newly created Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control (MAC), these extremists are now effectively armed and dangerous. The light and mild issue is simply the first of what will likely be many more obvious examples of who is actually managing the tobacco file in Canada.

On May 31st, 2001, the Minister of Health issued an ultimatum to tobacco companies. Based on what the Government believed was a significant need to dispel the “myths” surrounding the use of light and mild descriptors (and their potential health implications), manufacturers were told to voluntarily remove these descriptors or face government Regulation. The Minister then initiated a 100-day consultation period, for the purpose of obtaining expert knowledge and policy guidance from both his Departmental Officials (Tobacco Control Programme) and his Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control.

On November 1st, 2001, the Minister of Health released his Advisory Council report, titled: Findings of the International Expert Panel on Cigarette Descriptors. This report (developed over a 2 day meeting in late August of 2001) was accompanied by the Council’s recommendations for Government action. Not surprisingly, it called for banning light and mild descriptors and potentially other packaging design (e.g. colours) as the only viable solution to the problem.

On December 1st, 2001, the Government published its Notice of Intent to prohibit the display of “light” and “mild” descriptors on tobacco product packaging (Canada Gazette, Part I). Interested Parties were given 45 days to provide input into the development of these proposed Regulations.

The Problem

The Tobacco Act gives the Minister of Health the authority to regulate both product and industry, when the necessary research and policy foundation is ready.

With regard to light and mild descriptors, Health Canada addressed the issue in 1998 and further undertook a comprehensive literature review in 1999/2000. This comprehensive review, never published, essentially provided Government with a clear mandate to undertake further necessary research, educate smokers about compensation, and legislate the use of descriptors. The necessary research foundation in support of banning descriptors simply did not exist. The Minister would have likely been briefed on this.

Further internal Government documentation, retrieved under Access to Information, also suggests that senior Departmental Officials did not believe that this necessary research foundation existed as recently as 2001.

In a July 22, 2001 email from Dr. Murray Kaiserman (Director, Office of Research, Surveillance and Evaluation – Tobacco Control Programme) to Ms. Hélène Goulet (then Associate Director General, and now Director General of the Tobacco Control Programme), Dr. Kaiserman stated that:

“The issue of L& M is complex, involving at a minimum, marketing, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, epidemiology and law. No one Group of Experts can review and understand all of the issues. Rather, I would propose a series of expert Groups to review, conclude and report on a number of issues and questions relevant to their area of expertise.” “In my opinion, this will remove the perceived stigma of NGO influence; provide us with the most up-to-date literature review (which we will need anyway) and provide us with Canadian input into a Canadian solution.”

The importance of this statement is made more relevant by the professional reputation of the author. Dr. Kaiserman is the federal Government’s longstanding leading authority on the tobacco and health file, and arguably Canada’s foremost expert on tobacco control. This email, dated more than three weeks after the Minister’s ultimatum to tobacco companies, seems to question not only the legitimacy of the Minister’s position on the issue but also the credibility of the International Expert Panel report which was being coordinated by his Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control. Despite Dr. Kaiserman’s expertise, insight and responsible proposal to the Department, none of this necessary research seems to have been completed. If it had been, it likely would have been released or promoted somehow.

In its attempt to draw strategic support, the Government is promoting similar international initiatives as an impetus for justifying and securing domestic policy. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is used as one example within the Government’s Notice of Intent. Health Canada is well acquainted with the FCTC, having labored on this international initiative for many years now. Oddly enough, the Minister’s own senior Departmental Officials seem to have a much different position on the FCTC’s initiative on light and mild descriptors.

In a February 26, 2001 email from Mr. Byron Rogers (Senior Policy Analyst, Office of Policy and Planning – Tobacco Control Programme) to Gloria Wiseman (International Affairs Directorate), Sarah Paquet (Health Canada legal services team), Denis Choinière (Director, Office of Regulations and Compliance – Tobacco Control Programme), and others, Mr. Rogers stated the following:

In reference to the FCTC Chair’s text: “adoption of appropriate measures to ensure that: (I) the terms “low tar”, “light”, ultra light”, “mild” or any other similar term that has the aim or the direct or indirect effect of conveying the impression that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than others are not used on any unit packet or package of tobacco products”.

…it would be helpful to Canada’s position if there is anything of a more positive nature we could propose, since we are virtually alone in the world of Member States in disagreeing with this wording. Could we say for example: While Canada cannot agree to this provision at this time, Canada continues to review the evidence base to determine if the threshold is crossed whereby sufficient information may be developed (or may in the future be found?) To justify infringing on these trademark descriptors, such as “light”, “mild” etc., either by prohibiting them or by requiring corrective information to be displayed on the health warnings by way of regulations.”

In response to this email, Mr. Denis Choinière (Director, Office of Regulations and Compliance – Tobacco Control Programme) stated:

In my view, adopting “appropriate measures” does not mean only regulations. If we go the regulations way, we do face some serious problems (at this point anyhow) in terms of showing health benefits (mainly because of the paucity of supporting epidemiological data.

To add intrigue to the Minister’s position, Government documentation retrieved under Access to Information references research within Health Canada indicating that fewer than 2 in 10 smokers are seemingly “confused” about descriptors. Further research undertaken in 1999 (Environics) suggests that the vast majority of smokers do not believe that these descriptors are suggestive of a less addictive or less damaging product. The main point of contention, of course, regards the issue of compensatory behaviour among some smokers. Unfortunately, no comprehensive research exists as to the percentage of smokers who actually compensate, why they do this, how they do this and what impact if any these descriptors have on their health or smoking behaviour.

The 45-day consultation period, identified in the Notice of Intent, was meant to provide interested parties with an opportunity to review the issue and the research. Unfortunately, the International Expert Panel report which largely forms the basis for the Government’s current action, could not be effectively reviewed nor scrutinized during this period. More than 4 months after the fact, the minutes of their meetings, the presentations made by guest speakers, the methodology used for identifying, retrieving and analyzing relevant data and the process by which “experts” were selected (as well as their credentials) was simply not available. As well, the Department’s own report to the Minister, not expected until March 2002 (according to internal documentation), will not have been available to interested parties during this period. As the Minister has already made his position and intentions quite clear, one has to wonder to what extent the Department now finds itself between Rock and a hard place – now having to support rather than advise the Minister of Health.

The Government’s consultation process is meant to provide all Canadians with an honest, open, transparent and meaningful opportunity to debate issues. Regulatory Policy guidelines and consultation principles, promoted by the Government of Canada, are meant to secure and safeguard the highest possible standards for such consultation. Unfortunately, in my experience, the federal Government as continually failed to meet these standards when it comes to tobacco and the tobacco industry. As a result, legitimate industry stakeholders have continually been set-up to fail. The Government’s current management of the light and mild issue is but one more example of bad faith, bad process and (potentially) bad policy.

Where to from here

The necessary research and policy foundation is simply not ready at this time to warrant the Minister’s very aggressive attack against a legal industry, a legal product, 6 million Canadians smokers and the rest of us who value our individual rights.

The Canadian Government will be spending more than $200 million of your tax dollars over the next 5 years mostly on campaigns aimed at denormalizing both the tobacco industry and its products. Its current efforts on light and mild descriptors simply represents their first kick at the can. Budgeted as a “mass media” component of the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy, Government campaigns will in the end prove little more than well developed and orchestrated propaganda. Well-supported by Canada’s tobacco control extremists, these mass media campaigns will be aimed at normalizing what essentially comes down to Government-sponsored harassment of a legal industry.

The focus of their campaigns will be on creating and directing anger at the tobacco companies. The thinking is likely that it is much easier to encourage you to hate a faceless corporation than to hate actual smokers, some who may be your friends or family. In the end, it may all come down to asking yourself to what extent you hate the industry more than you love freedom and democracy.

Over the next few months, the Minister of Health will try to convince you that this issue is one of obvious, pressing and serious urgency. So pressing, that the Government somehow failed to address the issue when developing its labelling regulations in 1999. So serious, that the issue of light and mild descriptors and their undeniable impact on the health of Canadians somehow did not make the grade as 1 of the 16 new health warning messages on cigarette packs introduced last year. And so obvious, in fact, that the Government’s proposed strategic communication plan in support of the Minister’s current initiative, called for identifying a well-respected NGO (like the Canadian Cancer Society or the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada) to “create the necessary public outrage” on the issue. Ten weeks worth of comprehensive propaganda was considered by the Government at a cost of between $4 – $9.5 million of your tax dollars.

Are there more cost-effective, responsible and reasonable alternatives to prohibiting descriptors? Absolutely. The government could simply amend the labelling regulations to include information on light and mild descriptors either on the outside or inside of cigarette packs. They could commit a portion of its current $210 million “mass media” budget towards “informing” and “educating” consumers about cigarette design and compensation (e.g. point of sale advertising, print/television ads). The Minister could choose to commit the proposed $4 million to $9.5 million 10 weeks-media-blitz, in support of his light and mild initiative, at creating public awareness rather than public outrage.

But such alternatives would not provide the Minister and his anti-tobacco posse with the added bonus of having you despise the tobacco industry and Canadian smokers even more than they have already done.

The greatest threat to allowing our Government to continue managing this issue on a political level is that it essentially creates a slippery slope which ultimately undermines the democratic process which all Canadians have come to cherish, expect and rely upon.

Despite what you may think about smoking or the tobacco industry, the fact remains that it is legal. Allowing Government to bring in through the back door what simply won’t fit through the front, threatens the very core of our society. Allowing them to get away with it sends the message that we do not believe that all Canadians should be treated equally and that Government can legislate hate (under the guise of public interest).

For those Canadians who value their rights, a very clear and different message needs to be sent: “that while we expect Government to act in our best interest, we will never accept any member of parliament undermining the democratic process”.

The Minister’s attack on two little words like light and mild is effectively an attack on two other little words like freedom and democracy.

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 , 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, as an Evaluator with the Office of Research, Surveillance and Evaluation and Policy Analyst with the Office of Policy and Planning within the Tobacco Control Programme at Health Canada. In June of 2001, Mr. Martial abruptly resigned his posting within Health Canada.

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