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Health Minister Jane Philpott stands during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on April 6, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Health Minister Jane Philpott says tobacco companies may be working with "industry front groups" to interfere with government policy and the government has to guard against attempts to undermine tobacco control initiatives in Canada.

"We need to make sure our policies are not influenced by commercial interests," said Dr. Philpott in an interview Thursday, after some federal ministers and MPs met with a lobby group that has financial ties to the tobacco industry.

The Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA) and its provincial affiliates held a lobby event on Parliament Hill this week attended by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, House leader Bardish Chagger, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and a number of other Liberal and Conservative MPs.

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Members of the CCSA also testified this week at a Senate hearing on Bill S-5, which deals with the regulation of electronic cigarettes and the government's plans to move forward with plain packaging, which would strip brand colours and logos from tobacco products. According to the CCSA, plain packaging would make it easier to disguise illegal cigarettes and make it harder for convenience store operators to differentiate between contraband and legal products.

CCSA has financial ties to tobacco companies and has faced recent criticism for working with at least one major tobacco company to promote industry interests. Last fall, Imperial Tobacco documents made public by non-smoking advocacy groups indicate the company worked with CCSA on cross-country campaigns to promote the industry's interests, including lower tobacco taxes and focusing attention on the problem of contraband tobacco. CCSA members include Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges. The companies pay fees, but the CCSA has in the past declined to disclose the amount of funding it receives.

Melodie Tilson, director of policy with the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, said it's encouraging to know Dr. Philpott is aware of the fact tobacco companies may work with independent advocacy groups on issues related to government policy. But many of these groups, like the CCSA, are not transparent and many MPs are unaware those relationships exist, she said.

"It's really disheartening," said Ms. Tilson.

Dr. Philpott said she is aware certain seemingly independent groups may be working with the tobacco industry and that she has warned caucus colleagues about this fact.

In an e-mail statement, Satinder Chera, president of the CCSA, said the group regularly meets with politicians to discuss issues affecting small businesses, including credit card fees and tobacco regulations. He added that the association has never hidden the fact tobacco companies are among its many members.

In an e-mail statement, a spokesperson for Mr. Bains said he met with CCSA to "discuss issues related to employment and ongoing opportunities in the sector."

A spokesperson for Mr. MacAulay said he stopped into the reception briefly and did not speak about tobacco control.

Ms. Chagger's office did not respond to requests for comment about meeting with the CCSA.

The Globe and Mail reported last November that some think tanks and advocacy groups with financial ties to the tobacco industry have also come out in opposition to plain packaging.

On Thursday, Eric Gagnon, Imperial Tobacco Canada's head of corporate and external affairs, testified at the S-5 Senate hearing that plain packaging will not have a positive impact on smoking reduction and hampers the company's commercial expression.

Peter Luongo, managing director of Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, told committee members the company eventually wants to stop selling cigarettes and focus instead on alternatives, such as a new heated tobacco product the company has developed that he says releases less harmful chemicals than traditional cigarettes. In an interview, Mr. Luongo did not say when the company would make the transition, but that the government's proposals around regulation of e-cigarettes are too restrictive and could hamper the company's ability to convince smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives.

Dr. Philpott said, despite opposition from the tobacco companies and groups that have ties to the industry, the government remains committed to bringing in plain packaging and regulating e-cigarettes.

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"We are firmly committed to the changes that we have promised to make," she said.

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