Canadian anti-smoking advocates urge plain packaging laws

Anti-smoking activists are urging Ottawa to follow suit after Australia's highest court upheld the world's toughest tobacco law on Wednesday.

Tobacco companies say current labelling laws infringe on rights

Anti-smoking activists are urging Ottawa to follow Australia's lead after its highest court upheld the world's toughest tobacco law on Wednesday.

The so-called plain packaging law will bar tobacco companies from displaying their brand designs and logos on cigarette packs. Instead, they will all come in a drab shade of olive and feature graphic health warnings and images of cancer-riddled mouths and blinded eyeballs.

Four major tobacco companies challenged the new rules on the grounds that they violate intellectual property rights and devalue their trademarks, but the High Court of Australia dismissed the claims.

The regulations take effect in December.

Canada's anti-smoking advocates say they hope the decision will set an international precedent.

"The decision by the Australian high court is just the first domino to fall and we're going to see many, many other countries follow suit," said Melodie Tilson, director of policy for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association.

She noted that the United Kingdom recently held a public consultation of plain packaging laws, while New Zealand is currently in the process. Tilson said other countries are also expressing interest.

Health Canada said it is watching with interest to see what effect the plain packaging legislation has in Australia, and hasn't ruled out recommending similar regulations if they're successful there.

'Important defeat for the tobacco industry'

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, called the ruling an "important defeat for the tobacco industry."

"The industry knows that plain packaging is a massive threat and that if Australia implements plain packaging, then other countries are sure to follow," he said, adding that such laws are "inevitable" in Canada.

But the country's major tobacco companies disagree.

In a statement released Wednesday, Caroline Ferland, vice-president of corporate and regulatory affairs for Imperial Tobacco Canada, said she was "extremely disappointed" in the court ruling.

"There is no proof to suggest plain packaging of tobacco products will be effective in discouraging youth initiation or encouraging cessation by existing smokers," she said.

Ferland also insisted that the court decision would have no impact in Canada.

"Canada and Australia are two very different countries with different constitutions … As such, today’s decision only concerns Australian constitutional law and in no way suggests a similar law would be constitutional in Canada."

Canada's labelling regulations

Tilson, on the other hand, argues that Canada's constitution is "based on the same principles" as that of Australia and said that a similar law would be upheld here.

She called plain packaging laws the "next important step in tobacco control" and said the government has a responsibility to limit branding on cigarette packs, which she referred to as the "biggest form of advertising."

In 2000, Canada became the first country to introduce graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. At the time, the labels covered half of both sides of the pack.

Federal rules introduced in September 2011 increased the size of warning labels to 75 per cent of all cigarette and cigarillo packages. The regulations took effect in June 2012.

Canadian companies Imperial Tobacco Canada and JTI-Macdonald Corp. both launched constitutional challenges over the regulations.

In court documents obtained by CBC, both companies argued that the current rules infringed on freedom of expression.

Imperial Tobacco's statement of claim said the law "restricts tobacco manufacturers' ability to convey their trademark and brand information to their customers and to protect the value of their trademarks and brands."

The companies also argued that the larger labels don't lead to any change in public awareness or people's smoking behaviour.

Tilson dismissed that claim. "If it wouldn't make a difference, why are the tobacco companies fighting tooth and nail against this initiative?," she said.

Health Canada report released last year suggested that larger warning labels did make communicating the health risks of tobacco use more effective.

Tilson and other anti-smoking advocates are adamant that Ottawa has a responsibility to discourage new smokers and encourage current smokers to quit — and that standardizing the sizes, shapes, colours and logos of cigarette packages ought to be an important goal. 

"Death should not be sold in a little perfume pack like it is now."

With files from Associated Press