HEALTH

Smokers go to war

Tobacco taxes trigger a backlash

RAE CORELLI June 17 1991
HEALTH

Smokers go to war

Tobacco taxes trigger a backlash

RAE CORELLI June 17 1991

Smokers go to war

HEALTH

Tobacco taxes trigger a backlash

Ever since medical science first demonstrated a link between cigarette smoking and disease more than 20 years ago, Canadian smokers have come under increasing pressure to quit. In the beginning, health associations and the federal government relied on persuasion and mortality statistics to get smokers to give up their habit. Then, governments got tougher. During the late 1970s, municipalities began passing anti-smoking bylaws, while the provinces and Ottawa imposed ever-higher taxes on cigarettes. Since 1965, the proportion of smokers 15 and over in the population has shrunk to 31 per cent from just under 50 per cent. Last week, thousands of smokers, with the help of the tobacco industry, began registering their displeasure with tobacco taxes in a protest that promised—for the first time—to turn the campaign

for the hearts and lungs of the -

country’s estimated 6.2 million smokers into a two-way battle.

Angered by the latest round of federal and provincial taxes on cigarettes, two major tobacco manufacturers, Montreal-based Imperial Tobacco Ltd. and RJR-Macdonald Inc. of Toronto—with the backing of a third, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc.—began distributing 50 million tax-protest forms printed on the inside of large cigarette packages and addressed to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. At the same time, a Montreal organization calling itself the Smokers’ Freedom Society, backed by a tobacco-industry grant, prepared itself last week for a nationwide drive for members and all-out war with the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association of Toronto. Garfield Mahood, executive director of the nonsmokers organization, said that the new society was “a mouthpiece for the industry, and when you talk to the society, you’re talking to the industry.” For his part, the smokers society’s president, Philip Gillies, responded that the success Mahood’s group had enjoyed in getting government grants for its campaign meant that it had “one of the greatest scams going.”

Four issues currently dominate the debate between smokers and nonsmokers: the legality of the industry’s write-in campaign, the health risks posed by so-called secondhand smoke, anti-smoking legislation and tobacco taxes. The Montreal law firm of Martineau Walker, in a five-page opinion written at the request of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, concluded in May that the forms violated the federal Tobacco Products Control Act, which precisely defines what kind of wording can appear on cigarette packages.

Gillies, a former Conservative member of the Ontario legislature, said that the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council regarded the forms as legal because they were inside the packages and thus not displayed. Both sides predicted that the issue would end up before the courts.

Widespread concern about the effect of secondhand

smoke on nonsmokers has been the main force behind tougher anti-smoking laws. The Toronto Board of Health recommended last month that the city ban smoking in all places of work and public assembly unless there is an enclosed and separately ventilated room for smokers. Last August, Montreal enacted a bylaw that banned smoking in most public places and public meetings. In Vancouver, a public health bylaw requires that half the space in restaurants and open and common areas of offices must be nonsmoking zones, and that other indoor areas open to the public be smoke-free.

Still, the two sides in the debate disagree on the risks associated with secondhand smoke. Mahood said that the dangers of secondhand smoke had been documented internationally by medical researchers and condemned by organizations including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian Cancer Society. As well, last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta published a report that said that smokers may kill more than 50,000 nonsmoking Americans every year. But an international symposium on I environmental tobacco

1 smoke at McGill University

2 in November, 1989, which 2 was partly funded by the to| bacco industry, concluded “ that scientific findings did not £ support the allegations that g passive smoke was a health o hazard.

Recent increases in tobacco taxes have probably been the main impetus behind the escalating conflict between proand anti-smoking groups. Currently, federal and provincial taxes on a package of 25 cigarettes range from a low of $3.20 in the Yukon (where 25 cigarettes cost about $6) to $5.43 in New Brunswick (where a 25-pack costs about $7.50).

For his part, Mahood said that the latest federal cigarette tax increase alone, while persuading many people not to smoke, would boost Ottawa’s revenues by $1.4 billion “and save between

150.000 and 200,000 lives over the next three or four decades.” Research, he added, showed that the latest tax increases would persuade

700.000 people to give up the habit. But that would still leave more than 5.5 million Canadians still paying and puffing—and awaiting the outcome of the war.

RAE CORELLI

HAL QUINN