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The 2012-13 Youth Smoking Survey shows 30 per cent of Grades 6 to 12 students who used a tobacco product in the previous month had smoked flavoured little cigars.Sasa Prudkov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ontario and Nova Scotia are expected to make history soon by becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to ban menthol-flavoured tobacco products.

It might not seem like big news in the land where cigarettes are already concealed behind panels in convenience stores and smoking is banned in cars carrying children, on patios and in parks, but this is a huge deal. It's also decades overdue.

On Friday, Nova Scotia announced it is seeking a ban on menthol tobacco products and hopes the changes will be in place by the end of May, which would make it the first province in the country to institute such a ban. Ontario's bill has passed second reading. The two approaches contrast sharply with the approach taken by the federal government.

Last month, Health Canada announced its plan to further crack down on the sale of flavoured cigarillos, or little cigars, that are often sold in candy or fruit flavours that have a strong appeal with young people. The market for these small flavoured cigars has exploded in the past decade. Results from the 2012-13 Youth Smoking Survey, conducted on behalf of Health Canada, show that of those Grades 6 to 12 students who had used a tobacco product in the previous month, 30 per cent had smoked flavoured little cigars.

Under the proposed federal regulations, menthol will be exempt from the flavour ban. That's not a major surprise considering that in 2010, when the federal government banned flavours from cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products, it made an exception for menthol. There's no explanation or rationale for the omission in the consultation document posted on Health Canada's website. Perhaps that's because there's no valid excuse for continuing to allow tobacco manufacturers to add an ingredient that can numb a user to the harsh effects of smoking.

Menthol, which is found naturally in mint and can also be produced synthetically in labs, has been added to tobacco products in Canada since the 1930s. Anyone who has ever had a minty cough drop knows the flavouring can cause a cooling, soothing sensation. The effect is the same in cigarettes.

For instance, last year, researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington found that menthol, in combination with nicotine, desensitizes receptors in the lung's airways. There's a very real concern that those numbing effects mask the unpleasant, harsh effects of cigarettes and encourage people – particularly adolescents – to keep smoking.

Menthol-flavoured cigarettes are among the most popular ways for young people to start smoking. According to the Youth Smoking Survey, one in five Grades 6 to 12 students who had used at least one tobacco product in the previous month had tried a menthol cigarette.

"It makes no sense we would allow flavours to make it easier to smoke," says Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.

Until recently, menthol has been a sacred cow in tobacco control around the world.

Now that is changing and, increasingly, it is putting Canada out of step with the rest of the world. The European Union's ban on menthol cigarettes takes effect next year. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking at a ban – significant considering more than 30 per cent of cigarettes sold in that country are menthol-flavoured (in Canada, estimates suggest 2 per cent to 5 per cent of smokers choose menthol).

Even though Ontario is a leader when it comes to prohibiting menthol, it should be noted the province is proposing a two-year phase-in period for the ban – to help the older menthol smokers prepare.

Now that Ontario and Nova Scotia have taken the first step, Cunningham believes it's just a matter of time before other provinces follow suit. Quebec is expected to bring forward flavoured tobacco legislation in the coming months, he says, and he hopes they will recognize the public-health good it would do to include menthol in the ban.

Last year, it appeared Alberta would take the brave step of being the first province to finally crack down on menthol. But in November, the government revealed that its new flavoured tobacco regulations would include an exemption for menthol. At the time, Alberta Health Minister Stephen Mandel told the Canadian Press the decision was rooted in the fact many menthol smokers are "older people" who "need to be consulted."

Or, to put it more cynically, the Progressive Conservative government worried that taking such a bold public-health move would anger older adult smokers and hurt the party's chances of winning an upcoming election.

How about we frame the discussion another way: Cigarettes are highly addictive and kill nearly 40,000 Canadians every year; and three-quarters of people who have their first smoke before the age of 20 will go on to become long-time smokers at some point in their lives. All of those figures come from Health Canada's own consultation document on the new flavoured tobacco regulations – the ones that would exempt menthol-flavoured products.

The federal government knows the dangers of menthol. So do public-health leaders in every province. Now we need to recognize and regulate menthol-flavoured cigarettes according to what they really are: a gateway to a lifelong struggle with cigarettes, one that will result in a painful end for thousands of people.

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