The federal government is moving forward on its pledge to require plain packaging for cigarettes sold in Canadian markets, a change that would further limit creative labeling and packaging techniques use by tobacco companies to attract customers.
Canadian cigarette packaging bears some of most prominent health warnings
A call for tender recently published on the government’s main procurement website by the Tobacco Control Directorate (TCD) is seeking a contractor “to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of plain packaging of tobacco products.”
The TCD, which is responsible for the administration of the federal Tobacco Act, wants a contractor to “study the impact of changing the packaging of tobacco products.” It will require about five months of work, according to the call for tender.
A spokesperson for the office of Health Minister Jane Philpott confirmed that the cost-benefit analysis is an initial step toward changing the tobacco regulations so that cigarette and other tobacco-product packages would no longer include any colours, imagery, corporate logos or trademarks. There is no firm deadline for instituting these changes, the spokesperson said, but the department considers it a priority.
Typically, plain packaging requirements only allow the brand name to be included in a pre-set size and font on the front of the box, and every pack must be the same colour. Existing health warnings and other legally mandated markers on the packs would remain in place.
Plain packaging requirements are already in place in Australia and will soon be implemented in the United Kingdom, Ireland and France.
The changes render cigarette packages almost indistinguishable from each other, which anti-smoking activists believe makes them less attractive to consumers – especially young people.
Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, said he is encouraged by the call for tender.
“It’s very positive that the government is moving ahead,” he said.
“The sooner we have tobacco plain packaging, the sooner we can have the health benefits. Plain packaging will reduce the appeal of tobacco packages and brands. Right now, tobacco companies are using brand colours and logos to make cigarettes more attractive. That might include mountain scenes or feminine pastels, it might include super-slim packages targeted at women.”
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Manufacturers have tried to fight the requirements in court in other countries, but have failed.
“The tobacco companies may threaten, or take the Canadian government to court, but the tobacco companies will lose,” said Cunningham, who is also a lawyer. “The fact that the companies oppose this is a further signal of its impact. If it wasn’t going to work, why would they oppose it?”
The Liberal government first spelled out its commitment to instituting plain packaging requirements with a single sentence in its 88-page platform released during the election campaign last fall. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then made plain packaging a “top priority” for Philpott in her ministerial mandate letter.
It’s not the first time a government has promised to institute such changes. In 1994, the Liberals under former prime minister Jean Chrétien also vowed to examine the feasibility of restricting how tobacco companies could use their boxes to woo customers.
In Quebec, anti-tobacco groups have been pushing for plain packaging requirements for several years. Following the introduction of Bill 44 last year, which toughened the province’s tobacco laws and made vaping illegal in public spaces, the Coalition québécoise pour le contrôle du tabac said it was hopeful that the next step would be standardized packages.
Canada’s cigarette packaging already bears some of the most prominent health messages in the world, with three-quarters of the space on Canadian packaging devoted to pictures and text discouraging smokers from lighting up. Cigarettes must also be kept out of sight on shelves.
Companies like Imperial Tobacco have argued that these measures are enough to negate any marketing efforts, and that plain packaging could lead to more illegal, counterfeit products on the market.