Canada

Ottawa butts up against Big Tobacco

The government aims a new campaign at teen smoking

Robert Sheppard December 6 1999
Canada

Ottawa butts up against Big Tobacco

The government aims a new campaign at teen smoking

Robert Sheppard December 6 1999

Ottawa butts up against Big Tobacco

Canada

The government aims a new campaign at teen smoking

Player’s Filter is a more adult alternative than Export Ä’ in that the latter cannot yet deal with women while the former ‘can get along with women and is ‘OK to show feelings. ’

—Imperial Tobacco Ltd. internal marketing report, 1985, released last week

Ahh, that first kiss. That first cigarette. That first realization you were being manipulated by the tobacco companies. Welcome to the new front in the war against teen smoking. The first volley was fired in June in tough new national anti-smoking commercials, some imported from Massachusetts. They include the image of a young girl smoking a cigarette juxtaposed with one of an elderly woman on a hospital

lung machine while an announcer invokes industry jargon about the need to create “replacement smokers.” Then, last week, Health Minister Allan Rock moved in the heavy artillery.

There was the minister himself waving a batch of tobacco industry documents, part of the 1,200 or so pages culled from the monumental legal battles that have been taking place south of the border, and enlisting as a “special adviser” Jeffrey Wigand, the celebrated tobacco industry whisde-blower whose story has become the stuff of the current Hollywood movie The Insider. In cynical Ottawa, there was a perception Rock was trying to steal a PR march on cabinet rival Paul Martin. After all, it was Finance Minister Martins dramatic anti-

smuggling tax rollback of almost $20 a carton in 1994 (when coupled with coordinated tax reductions in Quebec and Ontario) that led to a noticeable uptick in the number of teen smokers. But anti-smoking advocates say the purpose of the exercise is much more involved: nothing less than to turn the imagemaking tables on the industry itself.

Nothing much else has worked. The finger-wagging ads that say smoking is bad have had almost a reverse effect, studies have shown, encouraging rebellious kids to light up in defiance of adult authority. Even the health warnings on a packet of cigarettes have become stale, Ottawa’s polling data are saying. But “the most effective campaigns have been the ones that seek to turn teenagers against the industry, to show them they are being played for suckers,” says University of British Columbia marketing professor Richard Pollay, one of the country’s foremost experts on tobacco advertising. Teenagers need something to rebel against—parents, teachers, authority figures, explains Pollay. That is exactly how cigarette manufacturers

A new wave of advertising campaigns seeks to turn rebellious teenagers against the cigarette companies

market their wares, appealing to a personal sense of identity, to the rugged individual, for instance, or the sensitive male. The trick now is to turn the tables and get young people to rebel against an industry portrayed as secretive, manipulative, caring only about its own profits.

Will the strategy work? Massachusetts and California are held up as the two most aggressive campaigners against the industry. (British Columbia is so far the only Canadian province to take the industry to court seeking health-care damages. Provincial Health Minister Penny Priddy says the campaign works only if it is fought on a variety of fronts at once, and if teenagers are encouraged to develop their own antismoking messages targeted at their own ethnic groups.) “To be honest,” says Cynthia Callard, executive director of the advocacy group Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, “the data have not shown significant reductions in teen smoking in California or Massachusetts. But at least there has been no increase, as is the case in Canada.”

Massachusetts, which began its campaign almost seven years ago, is in fact claiming that a recent survey shows a decline in teenage smoking rates. But the surveys margin of error is so large (plus or minus eight percentage points) as to overshadow the findings. Still, industry is wary enough of such campaigns that in a recent $300-million settlement in Florida, the tobacco industry agreed to fund anti-smoking messages as long as they do not attack the industry directly. Rock does not seem interested in this kind of compromise. Says Callard: “Before, when we went to Health Canada, there was an evenhandedness between us and the industry. Now, the tobacco issue is being treated more like racism or drunk driving. The government is not trying to balance competing interests but to achieve a social objective.”

For the industry, that social objective is

nothing less than demonization, something its spokesmen object to strongly. But it is hard for the companies to fight their own words from long-ago documents where the context is not always clear. The 50 pages of excerpts that Health Minister Rock released last week were filled with tantalizing code names and pronouncements—but were something less than a smoking gun. Did Canadian

tobacco companies target young people? An excerpt from a 1989 slide show by Imperial Tobacco Ltd. says the company “has always focused its efforts on new smokers, believing that early perceptions tend to stay with them throughout their lives.” The company kept research information on smokers as young as 15 and was prepared at one point to fund a hospital research study on the brain waves of young smokers. But Imperial says these remarks are being taken out of context and that it always considered the “young adult” market to be from 16 to 25,16 being the legal age to buy tobacco until it was increased in 1989. Did the companies consider “spiking” some of their products with more nicotine? Yes, but in the context of reducing the tar and other health-affecting gunk while still delivering the nicotine “hit” that smokers expect.

The most intriguing tidbit from the documents may have been the news that Imperial Tobacco, the country’s largest cigarette manufacturer, had tried in the

mid-1980s to convince its parent, the giant British-American Tobacco Co. Ltd., to develop and market a “safe” cigarette. It was turned aside on the grounds that to do so might suggest the current product was unsafe.

The good news for the health-conscious is that smoking has been steadily declining since the late 1960s, when cancer and health links were documented. In Canada, it has even declined in both the adult and, slightly, in the teen category since the beginning of the decade. But teen smoking has blipped up significantly among young people since prices were dropped in 1994. An annual Ontario survey of smoking among students aged 12 to 18 shows that smoking rates increased from 24 per cent in 1993 to 28 per cent in 1999.

The lesson of die past five years is that price matters. According to a study by the Canadian Cancer Society and others, in the five provinces that did not reduce tobacco taxes in 1994, per-capita consumption decreased 24 per cent. In the five that did reduce taxes (Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PET), consumption went down only eight per cent. After Ottawa and the five low-tax provinces agreed to raise tobacco taxes, prices went up in early November by a modest $ 1.28 on a carton of cigarettes in Quebec, a little less in Ontario. The resultant price of about $32 a carton in Ontario and Quebec pales beside the equivalent $48 price in neighbouring New York, $51 in Michigan. In fact, according to the Cancer Society calculations, Ontario and Quebec now have the lowest cigarette prices in all of North America, lower even than the tobacco state of Kentucky. Health Minister Rock says Ottawa has no intention of taking the tobacco companies to court, as in the United States, to get them to pay for the health costs of smoking through the price of a package of cigarettes. By keeping taxes and prices down, he may be inviting the provinces to go that route.

Robert Sheppard