The health minister prepares to table tough legislation
Trying to snuff out smoking
The health minister prepares to table tough legislation
Never mind the old holiday maxim. When it comes to the federal Liberals and their complex relationship with Canada’s tobacco industry, sometimes it is better to give—and sometimes, to receive. In February, 1994, a defiant Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced measures that included a controversial $450-million cut in tobacco taxes. The aim was to stem a flourishing tobacco smuggling industry and to provide support to the federalist forces of then-Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson, whose province was hardest hit by the illicit practice. But that was then, less than four months after an election. Now, with another federal election approaching, the Liberals are in a taking mood— while appealing to a broader constituency. This week, Health Minister David Dingwall will introduce legislation that will give the government back some of those taxes—and, more controversially, place tough new restrictions on cigarette advertising and the annual $60-million business of tobacco sponsorship of cultural and sporting events.
Some parts of the package are, politically, low-risk. The 23 million Canadians who do not smoke are unlikely to complain over an increase in cigarette prices—as much as $1.40 a carton more. For that matter, even the estimated seven million Canadians “addicted,” in Dingwall’s words, to tobacco are already inured to the idea of high taxes—which account for up to 71 per cent of the price of cigarettes in some provinces. And who can complain about measures aimed at curbing teenage smoking, such as outlawing cigarette vending machines and requiring photo identification for cigarette purchases?
The legislation will also include an almost total ban on cigarette advertising, extending to television and radio, billboards and street kiosks. The one notable exception: publications aimed primarily at adults. But many such magazines, including Maclean’s, have already said they will continue to refuse tobacco ads. Last week, both the Bloc Québécois and the Reform party said they tentatively support the legislation. In fact, said
Reform MP Grant Hill, a physician, “I will be advising my party that we fast-track it.”
Those are not welcome words to organizations affected by the more controversial aspects of the legislation—the new restrictions on tobacco sponsorship of cultural, entertainment and sporting events. Dingwall’s proposed measures fall short of the total ban on sponsorship that was widely expected. Instead, sponsoring tobacco companies may still have their name linked to an event. But any ads will be allowed to mention only the time and site of the event, and the company’s name on the promotional material can take up no more than one tenth of ad space.
That, some event organizers say, could directly affect smokers and nonsmokers alike as tobacco companies reassess their expensive—and extensive—sponsorship efforts. At Ontario Place in Toronto, general manager Max Beck said the impending legislation will likely mean the cancellation of the annual Symphony of Fire fireworks exhibition. The event’s $5-million budget is entirely paid for by tobacco companies—while the organizers made a $2-million profit last year.
“The bigger the event,” said Beck, “the more this will hurt.” Others note that the new policy comes at a time when government funding for cultural events is declining. “We are disappointed,” said John McDonald, director of public affairs for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. McDonald says his company has been flooded with sponsorship requests, especially ”in the last few years of government cutbacks.” Sporting events will also be hit. The legislation will not force tennis’s du Maurier Open or golf’s Export A Skins Game to change their names. But because it limits the companies’ marketing exposure, it reduces the value of sponsorships. As a result, Imperial Tobacco might pull its $1.5-million funding for the du Maurier Champions senior golf championship, says Stephen Ross, executive director of the Royal Canadian Golf Association. That could have far-reaching implications—profits from such events underwrite amateur programs across the country. And Jane Wynne, tournament director of the du Maurier Open tennis championship in
Toronto, says that Imperial has been a loyal and generous sponsor. “In a perfect world, tobacco would not be the product to have as a sponsor,” she said. “But this is not a perfect world.”
Some critics argue that Dingwall’s package does not go far enough. Rob
Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, called the legislation “significant”—but expressed disappointment that the government did not completely ban tobacco advertising. Cunningham, whose recent book, Smoke and Mirrors, traced the story of the Canadian tobacco wars, added: “We think the government had more room than they used.” In fact, the bill faced ferocious advance lobbying from tobacco companies whose representatives included highranking Liberals. Longtime party strategist Senator Michael Kirby, for one, is a director of RJRMacdonald Inc. And Finance Minister Paul Martin was once on the board of Montreal-based Imasco Ltd.—although his aides insist he kept a low profile during the debate. Meanwhile, some backbenchers say they faced pressure from constituents concerned about the possible impact on sports and cultural events in their ridings. In fact, stumbling blocks remain—in spite of the opposition’s support for the legislation. Dingwall’s package is intended to respond to a Supreme Court deci-
sion 15 months ago that struck down Ottawa’s previous, seven-year-old tobacco advertising ban. Industry officials have already indicated that they will launch another constitutional challenge to the new legislation on the grounds that it violates the right to freedom of speech. As a result, many of the more specific measures will likely come later, in the form of accompanying regulations that are harder to challenge. “The Supreme Court and the Constitution drove this package from the very beginning,” said one Dingwall aide.
It may also take months before those regulations are ready, and some MPs from tobacco-farming regions in Ontario are expected to do their best to delay the process. That would be unwelcome, said one Chrétien aide, who added that “we are committed to getting this through.” But until the bill is passed—or shelved— activists on both sides of the issue clearly have no intention of butting out.
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