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Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen speaks to the media in Winnipeg, on Jan. 8, 2020. Friesen says the province will pay Shoppers Drug Mart up to $2.1-million to provide counselling and items such as nicotine gum to an estimated 4,500 people.

Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

Thousands of Manitobans who want to quit smoking will soon have access to free counselling and items such as nicotine patches and gum.

The Progressive Conservative government, in what it calls the first program of its kind in Canada, is launching a social impact bond that will see Shoppers Drug Mart spend $2 million over five years to help smokers kick the habit.

“We are removing the barriers that keep people from making the good decision to quit smoking, and one of those barriers would be cost,” Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Wednesday.

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Up to 4,500 smokers will be allowed to enrol in the program. They would be eligible for a total of $380 in nicotine replacement products and counselling, which would be available through Shoppers and other outlets across the province.

If the program succeeds in getting at least 12 per cent of participants to quit nicotine for a year or more, Shoppers will be reimbursed up to $2.12 million.

The former NDP government promised to subsidize nicotine patches and other products shortly before it lost the 2016 election. Friesen said research shows people have a better chance of quitting when they get counselling as well.

Social impact bonds in Manitoba are rare – the government has only issued one previous bond concerning child welfare services.

The bonds require private companies to fund projects up front. The companies can be reimbursed and make a profit if the program meets or exceeds its targets. Critics say the bonds are more costly than direct government programs, but the government has said the bonds help ensure each program achieves its goal.

The Manitoba Lung Association said there is still a lot to learn about social impact bonds, but any extra help for smokers who want to kick the habit is welcome.

“The lack of smoking cessation programs is really quite significant and an important thing we need to work on as a society,” said Neil Johnston, the association’s president and CEO.

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Manitoba’s smoking rate is slightly below the national average at 14.5 per cent, Friesen said. Illnesses directly related to smoking cost the province’s health care system about $244 million annually, he added.

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