Canada’s push to add health warnings on individual cigarettes is a step in the right direction, but more measures are needed to cut tobacco use across the country, health experts say.
On Friday, the federal government announced its proposal to print warnings on individual cigarettes, cigars that have a filter, and cigarette tubes.
If implemented, Canada would be the first country in the world to introduce such a mandate.
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The proposed regulations build on existing requirements to include graphic photo warnings on tobacco products’ packaging introduced in 2000.
Geoffrey Fong, professor of psychology and public health sciences at the University of Waterloo and principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project, said printing the health hazard warning on each single cigarette greatly extends the exposure to the messaging of the harmfulness of the product.
“I think that this has a significant potential to increase the effectiveness of warnings for those who are using this deadly product,” he told Global News.
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In mathematical terms, the difference is considerable compared to having just the packaging labelled, he explained.
For a person who smokes a pack a day, the new measures could potentially mean 58,000 versus 7,300 times of exposure a year.
The government is also looking to update and expand warnings for cigarette packages that include a longer list of smoking’s health effects, including stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease and cervical cancer, Health Canada said.
Before the changes go into effect, a 75-day public consultation period that began on Saturday will seek feedback from Canadians.
What impact do warning labels have?
A growing body of research shows that health warnings on individual cigarette sticks can help dissuade adolescents from smoking.
A 2017 study published in the National Library of Medicine suggested that an unattractively colored cigarette and those displaying the warning “Smoking kills” could help reduce their desirability among young adults.
Another 2018 web survey among 16–20-year-olds in Norway showed that the use of unpleasant colours and warnings printed directly on cigarette sticks could increase perceived harmfulness, reduce notions of good taste, and possibly reduce desires to experiment with cigarettes.
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“There are a number of studies … showing that there are significant benefits for these warnings on cigarettes themselves,” said Fong.
Canada’s current proposal for the warning on individual cigarettes is “Poison in every puff,” Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said at a news conference Friday.
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Robert Schwartz, Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, said having the same warning all the time on every cigarette may be less effective than having different messages on each stick.
The new labelling will make a small difference in getting the message across, but that measure alone is “nowhere near enough” to stop the tobacco use, he said.
“If the government really wanted to do something serious, they would decrease the availability of tobacco, it would increase the price of it, and they would slow the pace of its sales,” said Schwartz.
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According to Health Canada, each year, roughly 48,000 Canadians are killed from tobacco use, which is the number one preventable cause of death and disease in the country and globally.
Smoking rates have declined in Canada over the years.
The latest data from Statistics Canada, released last month, showed 10 per cent of Canadians reported smoking regularly in 2021. The government is seeking to cut that rate in half by 2035.
“It’s going to take a lot to get Canada down to 5 per cent prevalence of smoking by 2035,” said Fong.
Along with the messaging, measures like taxing and setting a standard for very low nicotine in cigarettes could be effective in cutting tobacco use, he said.
In December 2021, New Zealand announced plans to ban those aged 14 and under from ever buying cigarettes in their lifetime in 2027.
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It also said it will curb the number of retailers authorized to sell tobacco and cut nicotine levels in all products.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., a government-commissioned review this week said the legal age of sale for cigarettes in England should be raised by one year every year until eventually no one can buy tobacco products.
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Schwartz said while “a complete ban is challenging,” Canada should be considering similar measures — like New Zealand and U.K. — that gradually make cigarettes less available over time.
He suggested having a quota on the number of cigarettes that can be sold, which would automatically push up the price.
“There is no reason to be selling cigarettes in every corner store.”
— With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters
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