After more than six years of study, design and focus groups, the federal government has halted its plan to require tobacco companies to update the warnings on the side of cigarette packages with larger and more grotesque images.
Health Canada told provinces and territories attending a closed-door meeting in Newfoundland two weeks ago that its tobacco strategy will instead concentrate on the problem of contraband cigarettes, an issue that has been highlighted by the tobacco industry.
The decision to walk away from the complex task of changing and enhancing the nine-year-old messages that are emblazoned on cigarette packages comes after the expense of much time, effort and millions of dollars of public money.
The move surprised the provinces, which had been looking forward to the establishment of a toll-free line to help smokers quit. The number of that hotline was to have been incorporated into the new package design.
Ida Chong, B.C.'s Minister of Healthy Living and Sport, said she had been eager to see the national "quit line" up and running.
"It was a bit of a disappointment," Ms. Chong said Monday of the federal decision to abandon the package-renewal program. "We know that warning labels to tobacco packages do work. We know that a quit line is helpful." At the health ministers' meeting, she said: "a number of us said we would have liked to move on these issues."
Officials of other provinces contacted by The Globe and Mail on Monday also expressed disappointment in the federal government's decision. Health Canada would say only that it "continues to examine the renewal of health warning messages on tobacco packaging but is not ready to move forward at this time."
The federal department had been examining the benefits of requiring tobacco companies to increase the warnings to cover 90 per cent of the packages. It had also been evaluating the impact of new images, including one of a dying Alberta cancer patient, Barb Tarbox, who spent the last months of her life warning Canadians about the consequences of smoking.
Anti-tobacco lobby groups say they believe the government is afraid of taking on the big cigarette companies.
"I would expect that the tobacco industry has been lobbying against these warnings just as they have lobbied against improvements to warnings on tobacco packages over the last 20 years," said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.
Garfield Mahood, the executive director of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, said he has heard that, when the industry learned about the revisions that Health Canada was planning, "things started to slow right down."
Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco, said his company believes the existing warning labels are sufficient to convey the health risks associated with smoking. Everyone agrees that the biggest issue related to tobacco is contraband, said Mr. Gagnon. "So I think it would be important for Health Canada to put its efforts on the contraband issue."
JTI-Macdonald, another big tobacco company, also said the government's priority right now should be solving the huge problem of illegal tobacco.
But it is unclear why the government cannot pursue tobacco smugglers at the same time it is updating the warning labels.
New statistics released on Monday by the federal government show that fewer Canadians are giving up smoking. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of smokers over the age of 15 fell from 25 per cent of the population to 19 per cent. That's a decline of six percentage points. But between 2005 and 2009, that figure dropped by just one percentage point.
Cynthia Callard, the executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said the tobacco companies have been able to prevent many smoking-related health measures by threatening job losses and legal disputes.
The fact that the federal government's decision was announced to the provincial ministers behind closed doors, said Ms. Callard, "speaks to the fact that it doesn't make sense and that there is something fishy going on."