The federal government is moving forward with its plan to make tobacco companies adopt generic packaging on cigarette packs.

Plain packaging featuring standard sizes, neutral fonts and the same dull colour for all brands has already been adopted in Australia, and is about to begin in France, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

'This is the starting gun.' - Cynthia Callard Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada

The Liberal Party platform included a promise to introduce generic packaging in this country, if elected.

On Tuesday, The Public Health Agency of Canada posted a public tender for a "cost-benefit analysis of the plain packaging of tobacco products."

The request states: "The Government of Canada has committed to introducing plain packaging requirements for tobacco products, similar to those in Australia and the United Kingdom. Such measures could consider prohibiting elements such as brand colours, logos, and graphics on tobacco packages."

Cost-benefit analysis

The request described how the federal government is looking for an assessment of costs to industry, as well as government expenses such as enforcement.

The request also seeks to find evidence "that exposure to standardized packaging is linked to a decline in smoking risks, and is particularly effective in reducing the appeal of tobacco products among youth smokers."

The plan to move ahead with plain packaging was included as part of Health Minister Jane Philpott's mandate letter.

"The wheels are now turning," Andrew MacKendrick, a spokesperson in Philpott office, told CBC News. 

Anti-smoking advocates were quick to welcome the news.

"I was really happy," said Cynthia Callard, with Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. "This is the starting gun."

Plain packaging in Australia

Plain packaging legislation was first introduced in Australia in 2012, a move applauded by the World Health Organization.

A majority of members of Parliament in the United Kingdom voted in favour of adopting similar legislation, which will go into effect in May. Ireland and France will also be introducing plain packaging policies this year.

A World Health Organization Europe report suggested early research shows that young people may be put off by plain packaging, and that more smokers would quit if faced with plain packaging.

But the tobacco industry has disputed the results, and have fought such legislation as an infringement of their intellectual property rights. 

Imperial Tobacco has told CBC News it will wait to see what the new rules look like, but will not exclude fighting plain packaging rules in court.

'More work to be done'

Over the last several decades smoking rates have been in decline in Canada, with smokers now making up just fewer than 20 per cent of Canadians.

But organizations like the Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation say smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable death, and have been advocating for a long-term strategy.  

Callard pointed out that plain-packaging legislation in Australia also came with tax hikes and other programs.

"There's more work to be done," said Callard, adding governments now face challenges they didn't have 20 years ago.

"We have electronic cigarettes, we have marijuana being legalized, so what we really need — and we haven't had for a while — is a long-term plan," Callard said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that there are fewer than one in 20 smokers in Canada, or less than five per cent of Canadians. In fact, just fewer than 20 per cent of Canadians smoke.
    Mar 16, 2016 8:25 AM ET