Anti-smoking groups say the federal government's tobacco control strategy has been highly successful but cuts to its budget will put the health of Canadians at risk and mean increased health care costs.

Representatives from the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Dental Association, the Non-Smokers' Rights Association and other advocates, held a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa to condemn the decision to cut $15 million from the strategy. A number of other groups also issued press releases that criticized the government's decision.

The cuts are a result of overall budget reductions at Health Canada and across the government that were contained in the federal budget tabled on March 29.

"The strategy has been working and these funding reductions will impede progress to further reduce smoking," Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, said. "The severity of the cuts to the tobacco strategy, especially when combined with previous cuts, will negatively affect the health of Canadians and will result in increased health care costs."

The smoking rate has dropped to 17 per cent, but that's still 5 million Canadians who smoke regularly and tobacco addiction is the leading cause of preventive disease, disability and death, the advocates said, and it costs the health care system $4.4 billion annually. One out of two long-term smokers will die because of their addiction – 37,000 Canadians die annually – and Canadians, especially youth, need to be prevented from ever starting to smoke, they said.

"By stepping away from a comprehensive tobacco control strategy, the federal government is putting the health of Canadians at risk," said Euan Swan of the Canadian Dental Association.

The tobacco strategy has helped with that prevention, and with helping smokers quit, and has allowed regional and national organizations to raise awareness about the consequences of smoking and to influence public policy.

"Rather than building on these successes, the Harper government has chosen to ignore the evidence," said Melodie Tilson from the Non-Smokers' Rights Association.

Tobacco companies win

She said "Big Tobacco" companies are the big winners in this decision to cut the budget.

"While the gutting of grants and contributions funding to national and regional health agencies, the Harper government has virtually assured that tobacco companies will have the upper hand in influencing policy decisions," she said.

The funding grants to groups like hers have helped counter the influence of tobacco companies and their lobbying efforts, she said, and have helped with the research behind successful campaigns and policy initiatives.

The Non-Smokers' Rights Association is taking a 40 per cent hit to its budget because of the cuts to the grants program.

Dr. Andrew Pipe, chief of prevention and rehabilitation at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, said his disappointment with the budget cut "borders on disgust."

He said the government is pulling back from its obligation to create a smoke-free society.

"I view the recent announcement of the government's intentions in this area to be bordering not only on neglect but also on negligence from a public health perspective," he said.

The advocates said there have been many successes on the anti-smoking front but there is still a lot of work to be done, new threats are emerging, and that relaxing the tobacco control strategy means social norms could revert and smoking rates could rise again.

"We have to be vigilent," Cunningham said, citing the use of water pipes to smoke flavoured tobacco as one of the emerging threats, particularly because of their popularity with young people.

Last year's budget for the strategy was $53 million. Of the $15 million that is being cut, $8 million of it was money that went to grants for organizations that work on anti-smoking campaigns. The other $7 million in savings are being realized through staff reductions, according to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's office.

There will still be $7 million in this year's $38-million budget for grants and contributions to health groups, but the government intends to direct the money mostly to aboriginal groups. While the national smoking rate is at 17 per cent, the smoking rate in Canada's aboriginal population is close to 50 per cent.

Grants to focus on aboriginal smokers

"The only glitch in the successful numbers is aboriginal smoking rates, which are still high," Aglukkaq said in an interview ahead of the group's press conference.  "We are looking at targeting our resources in areas where it is most needed to deal with the issues of the population that has the highest rate of smokers."

She also released a statement Tuesday that said the government is committed to the fight against smoking and has taken steps that include new warning labels on cigarette packages and banning flavoured mini-cigars.

"The current tobacco program is a decade old. It has helped contribute to success, but now is the time to make changes that focus on those populations that are smoking far more than the national average," Aglukkaq said.

Her spokesman, Steve Outhouse, also responded directly to the criticisms launched by the health advocates about the consequences of the budget cut.

"Unfortunately the language used by many of these groups today was alarmist and over-the-top. Tobacco control at Health Canada still has a $38 million budget. We're refocusing one part of the program to deal with aboriginal smoking rates, which are far too high," he said in an email.

Another change being made to the tobacco program to save $1 million per year is changing an annual survey on smoking to a biennial one.