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Two leading Canadian anti-tobacco groups to shut down after Ottawa fails to provide funding

The two award-winning Canadian non-profit groups that led the fight against smoking and tobacco products in Canada and around the world are preparing to close their doors after the money they expected to see in the most recent federal budget failed to materialize.

The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC) have been limping along on a combination of savings, provincial help, and the work of volunteers since their federal funding was cut by the former Conservative government in 2012.

Health experts and organizations across Canada anticipated that the Liberal government’s promise to renew the federal Tobacco Control Strategy, which expired on March 31, would include support for the two organizations. Instead, the government says the $11-million that was committed to the strategy this year and the $16-million promised next year will be used to stop the influx of contraband tobacco and to pay for unspecified “targeted actions” to help Canadians quit smoking.

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Without any new money from Ottawa, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada have reached the end of the line.

In a last-ditch effort to thwart their demise, nearly 80 health experts and organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, wrote late last week to federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor asking her to find both a short- and long-term solution to keep the groups afloat.

A spokesman for Ms. Petitpas Taylor said she commended the NSRA and the PSC for their work, and will soon present a new tobacco-control strategy.

It is estimated that the NSRA and the PSC could each survive on about $200,000 a year.

The failure of the government to provide that money “will render tobacco control development much more vulnerable to industry propaganda and will irreversibly weaken Canada’s tobacco control movement for decades, leading, without a doubt, to thousands of preventable tobacco industry-caused deaths in the future,” says the letter.

The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association led the drive to put picture-based warnings on cigarettes. Its focus has been monitoring the tobacco industry and it has, over the years, won several awards including the World Health Organization’s Gold Medal for Tobacco Control in 2000.

But the NSRA is now down to a single staff member in Montreal, has closed its Ottawa office, and is in the process of closing the main office in Toronto. Its next campaigns would have been aimed at getting tobacco out of corner stores and creating rules around second-hand smoke in multi-unit housing.

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Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada was responsible for the hard-hitting anti-smoking campaign that featured Heather Crowe, a non-smoking waitress who developed lung cancer through second-hand smoke in the restaurants where she worked.

In 2005, PSFC also won a World Health Organization award. It is now run by volunteers and operates out of one of the volunteer’s basements. Neil Collishaw, the group’s research director, said it will “struggle along” but, without paid staff or funding, there is a limited number of things it can do.

“Just over a year ago, both groups exposed the industry’s use of front groups and deceitful manipulation of the contraband issue to block new life-saving taxes and regulations,” said Flory Doucas, the co-director of the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control.

“It’s hard to imagine the federal government making great strides in achieving its ambitious goal of reducing tobacco use to less than 5 per cent by 2035 without the [non-governmental organizations] that have always been there to call out the lies and bluffs of the tobacco industry,” said Ms. Doucas.

Les Hagen, the executive director of Action on Smoking and Health in Edmonton, said the closure of these two organizations would represent “a body blow” to public health in Canada.

It is ironic, said Mr. Hagen, that it would happen under a federal government that has demonstrated support for tobacco control, including a willingness to move forward with plain packaging of cigarettes and legislation governing e-cigarettes. “It is very troubling,” he said, “to see the federal government drop the ball on the two organizations that have advanced the issue more than any other entity in this country for the past 30 years.”

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