The federal government is considering making Canada the first country to require individual cigarettes to carry health warning labels as part of an effort to find new ways to reduce smoking levels.
The proposed change is among the measures that opened for public consultation Friday, as the government tries to lower smoking rates to less than 5 per cent by 2035. According to the consultation document, Ottawa would also like to put warning labels on products that were previously exempt, including heated tobacco, water pipe tobacco and blunt wraps (rolling papers made of tobacco).
About 13 per cent of Canadians are smokers, according to the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey. One in 10 young people from ages 15 to 19 are smokers, which hasn’t changed since 2013. Health Canada estimates suggest that smoking is responsible for roughly 45,000 deaths in Canada each year.
Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, said the proposal to add warnings on individual cigarettes is a “very cost effective way to reach smokers every time they smoke.”
While no other country has added warnings to individual cigarettes, some studies suggest they help reduce the appeal of cigarettes. Health Canada’s consultation document includes a picture of a cigarette with the words “Smoking causes cancer” in block letters as an example of what the proposed change could look like.
The government is also looking at ways to make its warnings more noticeable, such as by using new colours, increasing the size and using other visual elements, such as thought bubbles or cartoons. Another proposal would require warnings to be thematically linked. For instance, a photo of lungs ravaged by cancer would be accompanied by text warning about the risks of lung cancer. The warning labels would also rotate after a period of time to maximize their impact, according to the consultation document.
Peter Luongo, managing director of tobacco company Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, said in a statement the proposed changes “will have little or no impact on overall smoking rates, when the focus should be on quitting cigarettes or switching to less harmful alternatives."
Mr. Luongo singled out the proposal to add warning labels to heated cigarette products, saying they will make consumers believe the products are the same as cigarettes. Mr. Luongo described heated cigarette products as a “better alternative to smoking."
Heated tobacco products use battery power to heat tobacco, which turns it into an inhalable aerosol.
According to the World Health Organization’s website, heated tobacco products contain nicotine and an array of other harmful chemicals. The organization says there is no evidence to show the products are safer than cigarettes.
Sarah Butson, director of health promotion and youth engagement with the Lung Association of Ontario, said changes are needed if the government wants to reach its goal of reducing smoking rates to less than 5 per cent by 2035.
“We think that type of bold goal requires some matching bold approaches,” she said. “We simply can’t keep the status quo with regard to tobacco control.”
The proposed warning label updates come as Health Canada officials are preparing for new rules that will prohibit tobacco manufacturers from using brand colours, logos or other identifiers on product labels.