Stephen McNeil's government began its retreat on banning flavoured juice and tobacco used in vaporizers almost immediately after the proposed law came under fire from the public, CBC News has learned.
Documents obtained under Nova Scotia's Freedom of Information Act show that within hours of the start of hearings by the legislature's law amendments committee, the province's chief public health officer knew the controversial changes were in trouble.
In an email sent at 9:13 p.m. on Nov. 3, Dr. Robert Strang told key members in the health minister's office: "I understand the issue of including e-juice in the ban on flavoured tobacco products has become a problem with our legislative amendments."
He ended the email with, "Thanks for considering."
Whatever advice he offered the minister is redacted. Advice to a minister is one of the exemptions allowed under the province's Freedom of Information Act.
By late afternoon the next day, communications advisers were on the file, as well as a lawyer from the Department of Justice. They all wrote about taking a "new direction" for the tobacco legislation.
By that time, members of the law amendments committee had heard or received emails from dozens of Nova Scotians opposed to the ban on flavoured juice and tobacco used in vaporizers.
Vote to delete sections of bill
Behind the scenes, it's clear the governing Liberals planned to amend their own bill.
Adele Poirier, a senior communications advisor, outlined the government's communications strategy in an e-mail sent at 4:22 p.m. on Nov. 4.
"Our Comms approach is as follows: provide messaging for the government member to introduce/explain amendments to the committee in the morning. As soon as the member begins this, a news release will be issued explaining our direction," she wrote.
"Our webpage will be updated at the same time. Media will have time to tweet/report. Media can get a clip from the minister as he enters the house at 1 p.m."
On the morning of Nov. 5, the Liberal members of the law amendments committee voted to delete the sections of Bill 60 that would ban flavoured tobacco and juice.
The Liberals then used their majority on the committee to send the bill back to the House of Assembly for further debate, as amended.
But it appears not all the Liberals on that committee were briefed.
Stephen Gough, a backbencher, was asked by reporters why his government lifted the ban.
"I'm not 100 per cent sure on that," he responded.
Talking points requested
CBC News also requested all communications between Strang and the premier's office.
The emails provided were all dated Nov. 12. That's the day before Health Minister Leo Glavine explained the government's decision to back down on the ban. Glavine's office was keen to have as many positive things to say about Bill 60 as possible.
Peter Bragg, Glavine's executive assistant, sent an email to the team now handling the file. It was titled: "Talking points on Bill 60."
"The minister has requested that we put together as much information about the benefits of Bill 60 and Nova Scotia's work to reduce smoking and harms from smoking," the email said.
"Please provide this information in bullet points and no detail is too small."
During the debate on Nov. 13, the minister and seven other Liberals defend the government's decision to back down from the original ban on flavoured tobacco and juices.
This month and next, the government will consult on what flavours should be banned when it comes to tobacco and whether that ban should extend to flavoured juice as well.