The federal government is abandoning its responsibility to protect the health of Canadians by failing to introduce stronger warnings on cigarette packages, says a new editorial published in the country's leading medical journal.
After spending several years and millions of taxpayer dollars studying, creating and focus-group testing updated warning labels for tobacco products, the federal government announced at a closed-door meeting with provinces and territories in September it was stepping away from the plan.
An editorial published Monday by the Canadian Medical Association Journal harshly criticizes the about-face as a "senseless" and "ill-conceived" policy change, and even questions whether it's a result of the government bowing to pressure from the tobacco industry.
"The federal government is abdicating its responsibility to Canadians in fighting tobacco," Paul Hébert, CMAJ editor-in-chief, said in an interview.
Most Canadians are familiar with the health warnings that are featured on cigarette packages and other tobacco products. The warnings are designed to inform people about the harmful effects of smoking, such as lung cancer, heart disease and mouth cancer, as well as about the dangers of secondhand smoke. One of the most well-known warnings features a set of blackened, diseased teeth, with the words: "Cigarettes cause mouth diseases." Canada was the first country in the world to adopt such strong labelling measures when the warnings were introduced in 2000.
But many consumers have become desensitized to the warning labels, which is why they need to be updated and made stronger, Dr. Hébert said.
"[The federal government]started well," he said. "They didn't finish well."
Health Canada had been reviewing the warnings for tobacco products for several years and was considering new labels that would have been larger and, in many cases, much more graphic than the originals.
One of the most powerful new labels that received a strong reaction in Health Canada focus groups was the image of Barb Tarbox, one of Canada's best-known anti-tobacco advocates, emaciated and dying from smoking-related illnesses. Another features a person's lips ravaged by mouth cancer.
Public health experts and anti-smoking groups saw the proposed new warning labels as an important step forward in the continued battle to get people to quit.
But at a meeting of provincial and territorial health ministers in September, Health Canada said it wouldn't be going forward with the proposed changes and that it was focusing instead on the growing problem of contraband tobacco.
The CMAJ editorial questions why Health Canada couldn't introduce new health warnings while also trying to deal with the contraband tobacco issue, and accuses the government of wasting time and taxpayer dollars. The abrupt shift also raises questions about the government's motives, according to the editorial.
"In the absence of a logical explanation, Canadians should be forgiven for questioning the government's motives," states the editorial. "Many have speculated that the government has caved in to the tobacco industry."
Health Canada spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said in an e-mail Monday the department could not accommodate an interview request and offered no further explanation of the government's decision against updating tobacco warning labels. "Health Canada continues to examine the renewal of health warning messages on tobacco packaging but is not ready to move forward at this time," Ms. Lemire wrote.
The statement added that Health Canada reviews new research about tobacco and various diseases and must determine the effectiveness of new warnings before they are introduced.
Geoffrey Fong, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project, agreed the policy shift is difficult to understand, particularly considering the importance of tobacco warning labels.
"There's no reason for [the government]not to go full speed ahead," said Dr. Fong, who is also a senior investigator at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. "What company has ever conducted the same advertising campaign for 10 years without change?"
Although new warning labels might not deter some longtime smokers, Dr. Fong said research shows that at any given time, a substantial portion of people who smoke are trying to quit. Continually being exposed to negative messages about smoking and its consequences can help those people think twice about lighting up, and may deter others from taking up the habit, he said.