No retreat on tobacco warnings: Aglukkaq

The federal government hasn't abandoned plans to reinforce warning labels on cigarette packages, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says the government has not backed down on boosting warning labels on cigarette packages. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The federal government hasn't abandoned plans to reinforce warning labels on cigarette packages, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Thursday.

"The news stories today are misleading," she told the House of Commons, referring to a story on the issue that CBC News carried Wednesday.

"My department continues to examine the renewal of health warning messages on tobacco packaging, and we have not shelved the plan, as I stated before."

Aglukkaq was responding to a question by NDP Leader Jack Layton, who asked for "accountability on smoking."

"We know that studies show that the new labels would stop kids from smoking and save lives, so why let the tobacco lobby decide what our anti-smoking policy is going to be? When will we have the new labels?" he said.

On Wednesday, CBC News reported that it appeared the Harper government may have buckled under pressure from the tobacco industry.

A multimillion-dollar plan had been in the works to increase the size of health warnings on the packs. But following intense lobbying by tobacco companies, the plan was abruptly called off.

A teenage girl smokes in downtown Ottawa in this file photo. NDP Leader Jack Layton raised the issue of warning on cigarettes in the House of Commons on Thursday, noting that studies show the labels reduce youth smoking. (Tobin Grimshaw/Canadian Press)

The big tobacco companies and even the Canadian Chamber of Commerce lobbied the government not to increase the size of warning labels, arguing it didn't leave them enough room for branding. They said the government should fight the sale of contraband cigarettes instead.

"None of those cigarettes is inspected in terms of its contents," said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. "They don't pay the taxes. They are sold cheaply and made available to kids. We need to … stomp that out."

That would also help the tobacco companies by squeezing their competition. And it's the course the federal government decided to take — even after spending nearly $4 million preparing new warnings and a toll free help line for people who want to quit smoking.

Liberal Health Critic Ujjal Dosanjh said the government has buckled on an important health issue.

"People should be angry and passionate about this issue. This government has chosen big tobacco, big money, over the health of Canadians and it's a matter of shame," Dosanjh said.

Contrary to what Aglukkaq said in the House Thursday, health groups say one of her deputies told them in a meeting on Sept. 8, 2009, to expect an announcement concerning the release of new tobacco warning labels last January. They were also told that a rollout of the labels would happen on May 31 — World No Tobacco Day.

Provincial health ministers said they were told at a closed-door meeting in September that the government was shelving the warning label plan in favour of a focus on fighting contraband cigarettes.

Those in the room, including Manitoba's Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau, said they pressed Aglukkaq for an explanation, but she wouldn't give them one then and still hasn't. She also declined to respond to a CBC News request for an interview.