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The future of this contentious, deadly and intensely popular consumer product seems to be up in the air

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Fayaz Aziz/Reuters

Joshua Knelman is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Firebrand: A Tobacco Lawyer’s Journey, from which this essay has been partly adapted.

With the monarchy on the minds of so many Canadians, it may be worth mentioning that across much of the country tobacco tastes confirm our deep roots in colonial British culture, which have managed to survive the powerful sway of that giant influencer next door: the United States.

Canadians might be flocking to Hollywood movies, dancing in clubs to American music and streaming U.S. episodic offerings in living rooms, but oddly, those who smoke mostly still go for British or British-inspired cigarette brands: Du Maurier, Player’s, Benson & Hedges, and Rothmans.

If we zoom out from specific brands to corporations, there are three major tobacco companies in Canada, although they are now all owned by larger multinationals: Imperial Tobacco, maker of Du Maurier and Player’s, is owned by British American Tobacco, headquartered in Britain; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges is owned by Philip Morris International, headquartered in Switzerland; and Macdonald, maker of Export A (a created-in-Canada cigarette), is owned by Japan Tobacco International (JTI), and is also headquartered in Switzerland.

These corporations – let’s call them the Three Smokes – once wielded massive power across the country. In the 1960s, after all, more than half of Canadians smoked.

But the golden age of tobacco is long gone, and the influence of these companies is in sharp decline, as is their customer base: Currently, only 10 per cent of the population lights up.

But this still leaves a significant and stubborn number of people (me included) who manage to support their tobacco addiction in a social environment that is colder and more inhospitable toward smokers than almost any country in the world.

I know this because I spent the past 10 years writing about a tobacco lawyer who worked for a number of the industry’s largest companies on the planet and who visited more than 70 countries at the behest of his employers.

In the global arena, it turns out Canada is an indisputable leader in its implementation of anti-smoking regulations and legislation.

We’ve proven that what it takes to lower a country’s percentage of smokers consistently and in a relatively short time (about one generation) requires hundreds of millions of dollars, a multipronged strategy and resolve – including littering our walls and doors with tens of thousands of no-smoking signs, which, ironically, also double as free advertising for this unique consumer product.

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Fans of jazz smoke as they listen to a singer at the Chelsea Club, at Toronto's Frontenac Arms Hotel, in 1960. Canada's smoking laws were more permissive then, though research had begun to show the harmful health effects of cigarettes and secondhand smoke.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

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Judy LaMarsh, Canada's health minister in the early 1960s, warned of the connection between smoking and lung cancer before U.S. medical authorities did the same.James Simpson/The Globe and Mail

The genesis of the Canadian anti-smoking strategy began in the summer of 1963 when the federal minister of health, Judy LaMarsh, announced in the House of Commons that there was evidence linking smoking to lung cancer. Her statement caused a small wave, which gathered strength less than a year later when the top doctor in the U.S., surgeon-general Luther Terry, dropped his bad-news smoke bomb: a groundbreaking 1964 report linking smoking to cancer and other illnesses. Dr. Terry, surprisingly, was himself a smoker.

Connected to this developing health news story was the fact that during the 1960s, Canada had boldly chosen to divert from the reigning U.S.-based model of delivering medical care to its population through private health insurers. Instead, over the next couple of decades, we underwent a massive transition, eventually centralizing how our citizens pay for medicine, and culminating in 1984 when the Canada Health Act was passed. That enshrined into law what was already a reality for most Canadians: paying taxes to fund the majority of our medical services.

Of course, this “universal” health care system was at odds with the damage smoking was now known to inflict on citizens. So, government surveys were sent out, information on tobacco use was collected and analyzed, and then strategies were formed.

Over the next 25 years, Canada exerted more energy and allocated more funding to empower its citizens to butt out. It began with some preliminary legislation, circa 1988: no more lighting up in federal offices or on national airlines. These laws began the process of controlling the movement of smokers, adjusting their behaviour and ever so slightly shifting the public’s attitude on when they could “have a smoke.”

Next, Ottawa began publicizing the substance of the product, with tobacco companies ordered to print on their packs the yield levels of tar and carbon monoxide. Then, new legislation took aim at ensuring a bright, healthy future for the country’s youth: no selling cigarettes to anyone under 18, and please unplug those cigarette vending machines, because they are no longer legal.

Attacking the brand identities came after that, when big black-and-white health warnings on packs became mandatory: “smoking can kill you,” “cigarettes are addictive” and “tobacco smoke can harm your children.”

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Examples of Canadian cigarette packaging in Montreal in 2007 and 2012.Reuters, The Canadian Press

The federal government kept probing the industry to see how far it could push before the Three Smokes pushed back. It made its biggest play yet in 1997 with the Tobacco Act, which at the time was the most aggressive anti-smoking legislation ever introduced in the world, banning all advertising and all sponsorship – and again, doing so ahead of the U.S. anti-smoking curve.

Many will remember roving around cultural events in the 1990s, and seeing the way tobacco branding was baked into the logos at the Du Maurier Jazz Festival or the Benson & Hedges Symphony of Fire (fireworks displays). Millions of sponsorship dollars fed these popular family-attended gatherings and festivals.

With the Tobacco Act, all of that branding would be history, as would billboard and magazine advertising.

The Three Smokes took the federal government to court over the proposed Tobacco Act, and their legal challenge wound its way up to Canada’s Supreme Court, where eventually they lost the case.

Canada next became the first country in the world to legislate pictorial health warnings onto cigarette packages. These often-gruesome, memorable images occupied 50 per cent of the space on every pack: “Smoking causes impotence,” one warning simply stated, accompanied by a large photo of a cigarette drooping downward in sexual defeat. The warnings were clever, effective and memorable.

The often-horrific pictorials were also revolutionary, because at that point no one, anywhere in global capital markets, had ever witnessed this kind of treatment of a popular consumer product that was still 100 per cent legal. Forty-two other countries went on to follow in Canada’s footsteps.

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Heather Crowe, shown in 2006, narrated a famous anti-smoking ad before her death from cancer, the result of secondhand smoke at her workplace.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa not only banned cigarette advertising on television, but it created its own anti-smoking ads and broadcast them in prime-time TV slots once so prized by tobacco companies. One 2003 commercial was narrated by Heather Crowe, a waitress who had worked for decades in a restaurant where the air was blue with smoke. Ms. Crowe had been diagnosed with lung cancer, but she had never smoked a single cigarette in her life. Now she was dying, she bluntly told Canadians. It was a personal and powerful story.

And there was follow-up support available: Any smoker who panicked after watching Ms. Crowe tell her story could call a quit-smoking helpline.

In some provinces, doctors began providing patients access to free nicotine replacement drugs, as did the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a global leader in addiction research and treatment, at their nicotine clinic in Toronto.

Meanwhile, as any smoker is aware, the federal government has systematically obliterated the images of specific tobacco brands: All cigarette-pack designs are now a uniform brown, and most of the package displays an increasingly large and graphic health warning. Basically, the only detail that tells a smoker which brand they are buying is its name printed in relatively small, bland font beneath the warning.

Ottawa, along with the provinces, keeps on pushing this addictive and harmful product back, and winning. No smoking on indoors, anywhere, followed by no smoking on patios. Cigarettes were required to be locked away behind convenient store cupboards, out of sight.

But one mechanism utilized in Canada’s anti-smoking strategy is perhaps far more contentious than any other law or restriction: taxes. In 1985, a pack of cigarettes cost roughly one dollar. From that point on – with only a few exceptions – governments have raised the taxes on cigarettes once a year, and sometimes more often. By 2020, the price of a pack, including tax, had exceeded $15.

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A sign warns of ID requirements at a convenience store's rack of cigarettes.Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

Cigarettes, because of taxes, have basically become a luxury item, and of course, the taxes generated from their continuing sales are feeding provincial and federal coffers with billions of dollars annually.

The World Health Organization agrees with this tax strategy, suggesting it should be adopted by every country. Counterintuitively, though, rising taxes also became a hidden opportunity for the Three Smokes to add a few cents to the base pack price whenever tax increases occur. Even with smoking rates in steep decline, this allows the corporations to earn more profit on every pack sold than ever before. Even better for them: governments get the blame.

The system seems to hum along, though, with the tobacco paradox continuing to play out in Canada: The federal government tells its citizens not to smoke; the price of a pack keeps rising; the percentage of smokers slowly decreases; “No Smoking” signs continue to proliferate; tobacco companies remain profitable; and the same government receives its massive tobacco paycheques, which some have estimated to account for about 1 per cent of all tax revenue collected.

A seismic court ruling has threatened to disrupt this paradox. The source of the ruling occurred in Quebec, way back in 1998, when two class-action lawsuits were launched on behalf of thousands of smokers in la belle province. Those cases have taken more than 20 years to play out, and led to a damning result for Canadian tobacco companies.

In 2015, a Quebec judge ruled in favour of the smokers, who’d been struck with severe health conditions or early death. The judge, in return, struck the Three Smokes with a substantial bill of almost $16-billion in moral and punitive damages. They launched an appeal, of course.

In the meantime, and much to the chagrin of tobacco manufacturers, all Canadian provinces decided to sue the Three Smokes to recover health care costs incurred because of smoking-related illnesses over multiple decades. As with the Quebec case, it now seems possible that the provinces could actually win. Quebec alone is asking for $61-billion, while Ontario is asking for much more: $330-billion. In total, the amount of money being demanded by the provinces, along with the Quebec civil suits, is in the ballpark of $500-billion.

In 2019, after their appeal in the Quebec class-action suit failed, the Three Smokes immediately sought creditor protection, which was granted. This means that all tobacco-related lawsuits in Canada are paused for the moment. Instead of a courtroom, the industry and government representatives have agreed to sit down together to try to come up with some kind of resolution.

Theoretically, if those lawsuits had been allowed to proceed, Canada could have been the first country in the world to bankrupt its cigarette industry. If that had happened, it would have meant that suddenly four million smokers would be out of legal supply: The country may have gone into a withdrawal meltdown. In addition, the cigarette black market would likely have consumed those billions of dollars normally directed to government vaults.

Then, a few months ago, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett floated the bold idea of printing a warning on every single cigarette. Yes, this would be a global first, again, but would it be effective?

It’s unclear. What we know is that Canada’s overall anti-tobacco strategy has certainly been effective in reducing its percentage of smokers so far, although we seem to have hit a wall, holding steady at between 10 per cent and 13 per cent. Add to this picture the fact that during COVID-19 lockdowns, there is evidence that smoking rates increased slightly, as did cigarette sales.

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A man smokes next to a mural of a man in a protective mask in Manila in 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic.Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Looking ahead, perhaps one part of a solution, or at least a way of lowering our percentage of smokers by a few more points, would be to change or limit the available points of sale for cigarettes – where they are sold.

Any Canadian, almost anywhere in the country, can buy a pack of cigarettes within five or 10 minutes of wherever they are standing, and at a store that sells chocolate bars, chewing gum, butter and milk. Of course, there is one channel of sale that exists in every community, and where corporately manufactured drugs are dispensed by trained professionals: pharmacies.

Although the sale of cigarettes is banned in pharmacies in every province and territory, save British Columbia, pharmacies are, perhaps, the only place that cigarettes should be sold. By doing so, it would at least divorce us from the idea that cigarettes belong in a similar consumer category as cola or candy (or newspapers, for that matter!).

Ottawa could go even further: New Zealand is moving ahead with the radical concept of outlawing the sale of cigarettes to the next generation. So, you’d need to prove you were born before a certain date to purchase them.

Ultimately, whether it’s across the world or here at home, the fate of cigarettes will certainly be decided by the next generation of business and political leaders, judges and lawyers, and, yes, voters, to figure out what to do with this deadly yet intensely popular consumer product, which would never be allowed onto a convenience-store shelf if it were introduced today.

Yet despite prolonged efforts by governments in almost every country to curb smoking, it turns out that because of population growth and easy availability there are now more smokers – not less – than ever before in human history: more than one billion fire-breathers on planet Earth. This includes the millions here in Canada, a quiet but powerful lobby group hanging around at the periphery of social circles, out front of bars, restaurants and clubs – rendered literal outsiders – stoking the fire of our continuing tobacco debate.

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