COLUMN

Taking the tobacco war too far

Diane Francis November 30 1987
COLUMN

Taking the tobacco war too far

Diane Francis November 30 1987

Taking the tobacco war too far

COLUMN

Diane Francis

As a smoker myself, I cannot dispute the fact that it is sheer folly to indulge in the habit. Anyone with half a brain now knows that smoking threatens one’s health. It is a dirty, filthy habit that costs a bundle. For two decades tobacco taxes have continued to outpace the rate of inflation, reaping a windfall for governments along with booze and other “sin” taxes. For smokers, life is a long succession of dirty ashtrays, nicotine stains, burn marks and large dry-cleaning bills—the result of clothes that reek of smoke. More recently, studies have shown that secondhand smoke is even more toxic than the stuff smokers draw into their lungs through filters. That has turned a dangerous personal habit into a public health issue, sparking smoking bans in public and workplaces for good reason. Smoking is a serious health hazard. Then again, so are emissions from the internal combustion engine.

Freedom is the right to swing your arm, but not to hit anyone with it. That is why I welcome laws that prohibit smoking where others may be bothered by it. That is why I welcome pollution controls on automobiles, to cut down harmful emissions. But Ottawa is poised to take draconian action against tobacco, not against other products that are equally harmful. And with his Bill C51—which received first reading last April—federal Health Minister Jake Epp, a Mennonite, is taking the war against tobacco a step too far.

In 1971 the United States banned tobacco ads from the airwaves. In 1972 Canadian tobacco companies, faced with similar legislation, agreed to withdraw broadcast advertising. This is appropriate because viewers, including youngsters, are unfairly and involuntarily bombarded with persuasive commercials. But with C-51, Canada has decided to unilaterally extend that ban to everything else: print advertising, brand sponsorship and promotion.

It is a singularly naive piece of legislation that unfairly sideswipes a number of enterprises, commercial and cultural—namely the tobacco and magazine industries. It hands U.S. competitors a huge advantage over their Canadian counterparts because the bill will not stem the flood of U.S. magazines— laced with cigarette advertising—into our country. Worse yet, it jeopardizes many cultural and sporting events in Canada now financed by tobacco companies. “Imperial Tobacco has been one of the biggest supporters of the arts, and not only things like the Royal Winnipeg,” Lendre Rodgers, marketing director for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, told the Regina Leader Post. “It seems to me very sad that these people who have made such a major contribution are not permitted to be front and centre about the fact.”

Canadian tobacco companies spend $75 million a year on advertising and promotions. Of that, about $13 million annually goes to magazines and newspapers. Tens of millions are spent promoting sporting events or cultural ones such as the ballet. Of course, this is not corporate philanthropy, but hard-nosed business promotion. Such sponsorships sell the company name and blacken the bottom line. And why not? Cigarettes are legal to make and sell and smoke. To boot, such sponsorships are socially beneficial.

Bill C-51 is a singularly naive piece of legislation that unfairly sideswipes a number of enterprises, commercial and cultural

But Epp and the antismoking lobbyists argue that the ban is essential to stem the consumption of cigarettes and to stop juveniles from taking up the habit. With merit, they argue that smokers require more medical care down the road because the habit is linked to cancer, heart disease and other problems. And in a country where the government picks up the medical tab, people do not have a right to harm their health.

But the fact is that tobacco consumption continues to relentlessly decrease. As a result, advertising and promotions are merely designed to compete for a larger share of the shrinking pie. Companies may hope to sell cigarettes through sponsorships, but it is doubtful that anyone ever took up smoking after noting that Imperial Tobacco, through its du Maurier cigarette brand, sponsored the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Kids smoke because their friends smoke or because their parents do. They smoke because they are curious. “In Norway, for example, there is a complete ban on cigarette advertising, yet a higher percentage of Norwegian children appear to smoke than their counterparts in [five] other countries studied,” said John Jenkins, professor of business administration at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. “Canadian survey results suggest that efforts to ban may be based on a serious misperception.”

At the same time, C-51 will not mean an end to cigarette ads because it does not ban the sale of foreign magazines. Some two-thirds of the cigarette ads or promotions Canadians are subjected to are the result of overflow from U.S. periodicals. As well, some cigarette promotions will inadvertently find their way across the border through U.S. television. We may no longer see Player’s banners festooning Canadian tennis tournaments, but we will be subjected to Marlboro billboards beamed from U.S. ball parks. And Bill C-51 may force Canadian tobacco companies to switch rather than fight. Instead of seeing cigarettes advertised in the Canadian TV Guide, we may see them advertised in the American Family Circle.

Of course, if you extend Epp’s logic, C-51 does not go far enough. Cigarettes are so harmful that they should be declared illegal. Then again, so should the internal combustion engine, whose emissions of benzene, sulphur dioxide, nitric oxide and lead wreak havoc on the nation’s lungs as well. Then there are other hazardous substances such as alcohol and caffeine—which can be poisonous.

Taking aim at everything in life that can ruin one’s health is as foolish as smoking two packs a day. Even so, if Epp and the vast majority of Canadians feel strongly opposed to tobacco smoking, it should be prohibited. However, that is not yet the case. Instead, we have a pathetic watered-down prescription for a problem, which will solve nothing. Bill C-51 is equivalent to attacking air pollution by banning car commercials to reduce car sales and emissions.

As long as people can still legally drive or smoke or drink, someone else has the economic right to cater to their needs. And if such bad habits cost society a bundle, then the government has the right to make the user pay. Ottawa could do more to reduce cigarette, alcohol or gasoline consumption by hiking taxes even higher than they are now on these items. As for the increased medical costs arising from bad habits, Ottawa should determine how much smokers add to the national medical tab and pass the costs along in the form of higher insurance premiums or sales taxes.