A federal government meeting log shows that Ottawa met with a tobacco company to discuss "suspended regulatory projects" months before it told provincial health officials and anti-tobacco advocates that it was going to hold off requiring warning labels on cigarette packages to be larger and more grotesque.
The log was among documents provided by Health Canada to a Parliamentary committee that has been probing the government's anti-tobacco strategy. Health Canada was on the offensive on Thursday after the details of the meetings with stakeholders in the log led to accusations that it was influenced in its decisions by the tobacco industry.
Health Canada's documents show Imperial Tobacco met with federal government officials in May. It was not until September - four months later - that Ottawa told provinces and territories that it was refocusing its tobacco strategy on stemming the flow of contraband cigarettes, a concern highlighted by the tobacco industry, rather than warning labels.
On Thursday, the federal government denied favouring big tobacco. A spokesman for Health Canada said the stakeholder meeting log from May was incorrectly transcribed from French to English - the meeting was actually to discuss "pending regulatory projects" but the phrase was incorrectly translated as "suspended regulatory projects."
Adding to the confusion, Health Canada officials said work on a tobacco strategy is ongoing, even though provincial and territorial leaders were told at a meeting in Newfoundland in September that changing cigarette packages was off the table.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told reporters she will announce a tobacco strategy in the next few weeks, but it is unclear what that will encompass. She has said that using social media to reach out to young people could be part of that plan.
"I'm evaluating all our options in regards to communicating with Canadians on reducing smoking levels ... It includes labels," Ms. Aglukkaq told reporters.
It's unclear why the government could not pursue tobacco smugglers and update the warning labels at the same time. The documents submitted to a parliamentary committee show that Ottawa spent almost $4-million since 2004 on focus groups, designs and studies to strengthen the nine-year-old messages that are emblazoned on cigarette packages. The plan was to have health warnings cover 75 per cent of the panel's surface, up from the current level of 50 per cent, as well as to develop a national quit phone-line to appear on the packages.
Anti-tobacco groups believe the government is afraid to take on the big cigarette companies, who have lobbied against bigger health warnings. They argue that the warning labels on packages are now ineffective at stopping young people from smoking that first cigarette or getting others quit. Statistics from the federal government show that fewer people are giving up smoking. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of smokers over the age of 15 fell to 19 per cent of the population from 25 per cent, a six-percentage-point decline. But between 2005 and 2009, that drop was just one percentage point.
"There's no justification for delaying the revision of the health warnings," said Geoffrey Fong, a professor of psychology and health studies at the University of Waterloo, who appeared before the parliamentary committee on Thursday.
Nova Scotia's public health officials said they were ready to make changes to warning labels this month. Provinces were also looking forward to the establishment of a toll-free line to help smokers quit, a much more efficient strategy, they say, than the various numbers used across the country.
Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, said the federal government was influenced by the tobacco industry, whose tactics involve delaying, distracting and distorting decisions. "I need to ask why the interests of the tobacco industry are being placed above the health of Canadians and the interests of provincial and territorial governments," he told the committee.
He added: "The delay in the visual health warning and the toll-free number has only one beneficiary: the tobacco industry."
With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa