The debate was couched in terms of cultural survival and freedom of speech. In the elegant foyer of the National Arts Centre, representatives of arts and sports groups held a news conference, asking Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to neuter Ottawa’s impending tobacco control legislation. Outside, antismoking advocates distributed leaflets on the dangers of nicotine. On the surface, the skirmish seemed civil enough. But behind the scenes, the tobacco war has been a dandy. Last week, the federal cabinet finally approved Health Minister David Dingwall’s new regulations, which among other things will ban tobacco sponsorship of arts, sports and entertainment events. That legislation, which could be tabled in the House of Commons as early as next week, was supposed to have been ready many weeks ago. So what was the holdup? Fingers are being pointed all over the place—even at Dingwall’s cabinet colleagues. And that may be precisely the point: if the last great legislative battle of 1996 illustrates anything, it is that hard truth becomes as elusive as a wisp of smoke when politics, moral conviction and big money intersect. “This,” as one tobacco lobbyist puts it, “is all about spin.”
That is an understatement. Lurking beneath the elevated language used by arts and sports groups is a brutal reality: the habit that kills some 45,000 Canadians a year has become a funding lifeline. At stake are the millions of dollars spent by Canada’s tobacco companies on sponsorship—$60 million in 1995—and, lobbyists warn, the future of such events as the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the du Maurier Open Tennis Championship and the Vancouver International Film Festival. But the fight is also about the future of the $8-billion tobacco industry—and the power of advertising. Tobacco spokesmen do not dispute the fact that prominently displayed corporate logos sell cigarettes. But, insists Robert Parker, president of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council, “All advertising can do is cause people to switch brands.” Not so, maintain anti-smoking groups, who brandish a mountain of research showing that cigarette ads make people light up in the first place.
Ottawa’s position has long been clear: in 1987, the Mulroney government brought in a bill banning tobacco advertising altogether and requiring health warnings on cigarette packs. Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law’s advertising ban as unconstitutional. In response, Maclean’s has learned, the government considered invoking the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause—the first time Ottawa would have taken such a step—to re-enact the legislation. Instead, Diane Marleau, Dingwall’s predecessor, unveiled a blueprint for a sweeping new tobacco control bill, which again promised a complete ban on tobacco advertising, as well as on sponsorship of sports and arts events.
It has been a murky campaign. The tobacco industry says that Dingwall’s pending legislation—based on Marleau’s blueprint—is being driven by the antismoking lobby. That may be so, but in the corridors of Ottawa, blame for slowing down the bill focuses on the high-powered—and wellconnected—tobacco lobby. As one Ottawa insider points out: “They have so many points of access to the highest levels of government that it’s scary.”
Canada’s tobacco company corporate offices are filled with people who know their way around Parliament Hill. Imperial Tobacco Ltd.’s vice-president of corporate affairs is former Mulroney chief of staff Norman Spector, while Bernard Roy, another former Mulroney chief of staff, sits on the board of parent company Imasco Ltd. The chairman of Rothman’s Inc.’s board of directors is Conservative Senator William Kelly, while his Red Chamber Tory colleague Roch Bolduc sits on the board as well. Some Liberals also have intimate connections with the tobacco industry. The directors of RJR-Macdonald Inc. include influential Liberal Senator Michael Kirby. And before entering politics, Finance Minister Paul Martin was once on the Imasco board. ‘That’s crazy,” says Parker, when asked if the tobacco lobby has an inordinate amount of influence in Ottawa. “If we have so much access to the corridors of power, why aren’t we more effective?”
It does not appear to be from lack of trying. In a sign of frustration, Dingwall blew up last month, characterizing tobacco industry lobbying against his legislation “as tough, vicious and personal.” And while the delay in tabling the new regulations has partially been a result of fine-tuning the legislation to withstand inevitable legal challenges, other pressures also seem to be at work. Compensation for arts and sports groups was a widely anticipated part of Dingwall’s impending package. Now, insiders say, the finance department is balking at coming up with the cash. As tobacco council spokeswoman Marie-Josée Lapointe pointed out recently: “Some people stand to lose their shirts in this debate.” That is one thing on which everyone can agree.
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