At a strongly attended press conference today, Health Canada unveiled the new warning labels to be posted in the foyers of all anti-tobacco organizations and the requirements that these labels be prominently posted in all their advertisements and websites.
The new Minister of Health, Shauna Whyte, took this high-profile step to signal a break with previous government tobacco policies which had been criticized as being too cozy with organizations that are intent on keeping Canadians smoking. She declared that these new regulations would be the first of a series of such policies that would turn the emphasis of Health Canada tobacco policies back onto health. “We’ve been allowing powerful special interests to dictate our policies long enough; it’s time to really think about how these policies affect the people we are supposed to be serving”.
As the Minister noted, recent consultations indicated that all the elements for radically reducing tobacco-related disease were already in place, and the only impediments were those coming from certain prominent activist groups. “The only proven method for reducing smoking prevalence much below one fifth of the population is for smokers to switch to low-risk alternative products like smokeless tobacco and other smoke-free alternatives.” This strategy, known as harm reduction, is embraced by the public health community in areas ranging from sexual behavior to transportation, and is particularly effective in the case of smoking since switching to alternative products has basically the same health benefit as quitting entirely.
The government decided to move on this now because some of the more active opponents of public health had moved beyond these organizations to gain government and other public service appointments. “Ironically, the appropriate metaphor is cancer, and we have to stop the cancer before it gets into the tobacco companies where most of the real research on safer nicotine products is being conducted. If they breach those walls, they will shut down all research resulting in a world with only one tobacco product and the most dangerous one at that.”
“These organizations try to portray their deadly message as glamorous and healthy, and many of their marketing efforts are clearly directed at children. Their actions run counter to the public interest, so we need to take these steps before things get even worse.”
This new legislation which would educate donors as to the harmful effects of their donations, and the new tax levied on the donors would help offset the social costs resulting from the donations, was felt necessary because “most people don’t seem to know where their money is going, and while we don’t want to interfere with their rights to donate, we want to be sure that they are fully aware of the results of their actions. Many of these people are or know smokers and may not know that their donation could contribute to the premature death of a loved one.”
Among the organizations to be affected by this ruling were the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Lung Association, and Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada. And while Health Canada cannot affix the warnings to non-Canadian groups, any Canadians donating to foreign anti-health groups such as the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids or Action on Smoking and Health would still be subject to the new levy.
When questioned about her own government’s banning of electronic cigarettes, another alternative that was believed to be as low in risk as smokeless tobacco, the Minister replied “the responsible individuals no longer work in this department and the first order of business will be removing that ban”.
In a hastily called press conference, the spokesman from a coalition of anti-smoking and anti-tobacco groups, Samuel Webber, protested that they were engaged in legal activities and that the move would result in job losses. “Our donors are adults who are making a lifestyle choice to contribute. They understand the health risks caused by our political action, and we have never attempted to conceal those risks. Opposing harm reduction is an important industry. It pays salaries that are higher than our employees could make in other fields, and so this policy will hurt families and community services.” Mr. Webber concluded with the impassioned plea, “won’t somebody think of the children?” Proponents of the new policy responded by citing studies about additional government health care expenditures caused by these donations, which the taxes will help offset , and argued that the children would be better off growing up in a world where they are free to reduce their risk.
The Minister finished with “we know there will be some opposition to this. The groups we are up against are quite powerful and are not used to playing by the rules. They are entrenched and have come to expect the free ride and the big paycheques to continue forever. But sometimes you can’t just do what is easy, you have to do what is right”.
(We trust that it is obvious that this is a parody. We will explicitly state it because in this area truth so often loses the battle with fiction that sometimes it is hard to tell. It was written by Paul L Bergen with Carl V. Phillips providing valuable contributions.)