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'World-precedent measure': Heart and Stroke Foundation applauds single cigarette warnings

Annual exposures to warning messages are expected to increase from 7,300 to 58,000. "It's going to be a daily reminder," says a spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
According to Statistics Canada, about 10 per cent of Canadians are regular smokers.

The Canadian federal government introduced a new mandate, which calls on improving messaging on tobacco products and packaging, including the addition of health warnings on individual tobacco items. 

Updating the messaging on tobacco packaging has been a long time coming, says Manuel Arango, director of policy and advocacy for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

"The reality is that the warnings on tobacco packages hadn't been updated since 2011. And for a lot of other tobacco products, they've been unchanged since 2000."

While the messaging has not been confirmed, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said at a news conference last Friday (June 10) that the working phrase printed on cigarettes is "Poison in every puff."

The consultation period beings on Saturday, and the government hopes to implement the mandate in late 2023. 

The new warning on the individual product is a big deal, a "world-precedent measure," Arango says.

"That is going to be very, very useful. The reason is that having warnings on cigarettes will increase the number of annual exposures to warning messages from 7,300 to 58,000 per year. It's going to be a daily reminder."

Dr. Shimi Kang, a clinical associate professor in the University of British Columbia's psychiatry department, agrees it's a great step. 

"Research does show that consistent messaging helps. Visual messaging can also help — not everyone is a reader. And so images can be very powerful. On that note, there is evidence of benefits to a certain degree."

Kang notes prevention strategies like educating young people also needs to be part of the public health campaign. 

"In my experience, [smoking] is really tied into mental health. Seventy per cent of all addictions are part of an untreated mental health condition. So providing emotional learning, like skills for emotional regulation, social skills, mental health literacy, all of those can also have an impact," she says. "When we look at the bigger picture, when we teach children how to cope with stress and manage their life, we see less turning to behaviours like nicotine."

Although Arango agrees that education is necessary, that factor also has its limits.

"It's a start, but in of itself, it has to be combined with these other things such as the increased taxes, increased age limits, and then the smoke-free generation policy that will add and build on this education that could happen in schools."

Lowering smoking Canadians

A Statistics Canada report finds that the overall percentage of cigarette smokers in Canada has been on a decline. It also notes that about 10 per cent of Canadians are regular smokers.

The updated warnings and new messaging strategy is part of the Canadian government's longer term plan to lower the number of regular smokers to five per cent by 2035.

And when the government reaches this goal, Arango says a smoke-free generation policy will be another important measure to implement. 

"Twenty years from now, if someone's born in 2030, they'll start to ban cigarettes for people born in that year, and thereafter." 

While Canada has not implemented this policy, New Zealand recently introduced and enacted it, where anyone 14 and under will be banned from purchasing tobacco products.

It is a policy that's being discussed amongst advocacy groups like Heart and Stroke. But since B.C's prevalence rate is a bit over 10 per cent, and Canada's is 13 per cent, a blanket ban on tobacco products is not possible. 

"When you have prevalence rates at those rates, it's not possible to ban because if we banned tobacco products and sales, there would be some black market issues. I think for a lot of tobacco control advocates, they're just waiting for these rates to get under five per cent. And then that is a policy that should be considered," says Arango.

He also notes that this policy invites two questions for consideration.

"Once you get down to less than five per cent — and we don't know what the number is, whether it's four or 3.5 per cent — is it feasible then to ban smoking? And then the next question would be for those 3.5 or four per cent that are still smoking, what else can be done to help them deal with the nicotine addiction?"

And although Arango is happy to see the proposed mandate and improvements on messaging, he emphasizes it's important for governments to do more.

"We are always encouraging both federal government and provincial governments that we need to not lose sight of the fact that we really need to be focused on reducing tobacco use because if we stop focusing on that, it can rebound very easily. It's about keeping our eyes on the prize, and really focusing on exploring new measures to reduce tobacco use."