Change in packaging of flavoured tobacco products

Tobacco companies avoid the legal definition in the Tobacco Act by increasing the weight to more than 1.4 grams, which allows them to continue to add flavours, the Canadian Cancer Societys says. (Canadian Cancer Society)

More than half of high school students surveyed in Canada who used tobacco said they tried candy-flavoured products, say health groups calling for a ban on all such products.

Overall in Canada, 52 per cent (169,300) of students in Grades 9 to 12 who reported using tobacco during the 30 days before the survey was taken had used flavoured tobacco products, according to the Youth Smoking Survey released Monday by a coalition of health groups.

'A lot of people are shocked that these products are on the market. They look like Halloween candy or lip gloss.'- Donna Pasiechnik, Canadian Cancer Society

About 32 per cent (75,200) of students who smoked in the last 30 days reported using menthol cigarettes, indicates the survey, with its findings extrapolated from the sample of more than 50,000 students.

Tobacco products come in favours including watermelon, chocolate and strawberry. They are packaged in enticing colours aimed at children and carry no health warnings, said Donna Pasiechnik of the Canadian Cancer Society. 

"A lot of people are shocked that these products are on the market," Pasiechnik said in interview with CBC Radio's The Morning Edition in Saskatchewan. "They look like Halloween candy or lip gloss."

"The key thing is for provincial governments and the federal government to ban all flavoured tobacco products," said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society in Ottawa.

Ban avoided by increase product size

A ban on flavoured tobacco products is urgently needed because the market among younger people is no longer just for cigarettes, Cunningham said.

For example, while the survey suggests that 14 per cent of high school students (237,100 students) in the survey had smoked in the previous 30 days, 20 per cent (327,000 students) had used one type of tobacco product.

The federal Tobacco Act prohibits flavours, except menthol, in cigarettes, cigarillos (little cigars) and wraps for loose tobacco. But cigarillos are defined as cigars weighing 1.4 grams or less, or having a cigarette filter. 

The tobacco industry avoided a 2009 ban on flavours in small filtered cigars by simply increasing the size of products, which in turn exempted the industry from the ban, according to the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco.

Governments in Alberta and Quebec have said they will take action on banning flavoured tobacco products, Cunningham said.

Health Canada said its inspectors issue warnings, seize products or refer cases for prosecution when they have reasonable grounds to believe the act has been contravened.

"In January 2012, Health Canada’s tobacco inspectors seized 28 million units of flavoured little cigars that were not compliant with the Act," a spokesman said in an email.

The Youth Smoking Survey by Health Canada and the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo in Ontario is conducted every two years. The most recent survey results are from the survey done between October 2010 and June 2011, with 50,949 students participating across Canada.

E-cigarettes called 'illusion' of safe substitute 

In other tobacco-related news Monday, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal calls for e-cigarettes to be regulated as drug-delivery devices.

Selling non-nicotine e-cigarettes is legal in Canada and electronic cigarettes containing nicotine are sneaked in from the U.S., says Matthew Stanbrook, a deputy editor at the journal.

"We must not be so easily lured by the illusion of a safe substitute for cigarettes that we yield precious ground in the war against tobacco," Stanbrook concluded.

Arguments in favour of e-cigarettes are based on the assumption that their availability will lead to quitting use of tobacco, he said. But it's also possible that e-cigarettes supplement tobacco use where smoking is no longer allowed, perpetuating smoking among people who would otherwise be motivated to continue trying to quit.

"Concerns are amplified further by the emergency of tobacco companies as major players in the e-cigarette industry without any accompanying slowdown in the tobacco production or marketing, which suggests that the tobacco industry sees a future where e-cigarattes accompany and perpetuate, rather than supplant, tobacco use."

On Tuesday, European lawmakers voted in favour of limits on advertising electronic cigarettes, bigger warnings on cigarette packs and a ban on menthol as of 2022, among other flavourings.

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar and the Associated Press