Health Canada will hold public consultations on plain tobacco packages

Canada's Liberal government says it will hold public consultations over three months before it follows through on plans to make companies use generic packaging for tobacco products.

Plain packaging 'kills the glamour,' head of World Health Organization says

On the left, what cigarette packages used to look like in Australia before a plain packaging law was passed, resulting in the new look on the right. (David Hammond/University of Waterloo)

Canada's Liberal government says it will hold three months of public consultations before it follows through on plans to have companies use generic packaging for cigarettes and other tobacco products.

To mark Tuesday's World No Tobacco Day, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced a three-month online consultation on tobacco packaging sizes and shapes to guide the development of the new regulations.

The plain packaging measures will include a standardized box size, and prohibit colours, logos and graphics on all tobacco packaging.

There's no question Canada will proceed with generic packing, Philpott said.

"Plain packaging is a critical tool in helping young people to make smart choices, to stop smoking, or better yet never to start," Philpott said at an Ottawa high school. "We need your help because we need to know for sure what will work the best."

The World Health Organization has released an 86-page report on "plain packaging," hoping to decrease the allure of smoking.

WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan said plain packaging "kills the glamour, which is appropriate for a product that kills people."

Similarly, Philpott said she doesn't believe the tobacco industry should be able to build brand loyalty for products that kill. 

In 2012, Australia became the first WHO member state to introduce plain packaging, and other countries have followed. New Zealand on Tuesday announced it will push ahead with similar plans.

The Canadian Coalition for Action on Tobacco, which includes the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Canadian Cancer Society, called for plain and standardized packaging that would prohibit all promotional features on all tobacco packaging.

Only the brand name would be allowed. 

Graphic health warnings would remain on packages. Equally important, the health groups said, the size and shape of cigarette packs would be standardized, prohibiting specialty packages of slim and superslim cigarettes that target young women and leave the health warnings almost illegible.

When plain packaging laws in Australia and the U.K. were challenged in court, tobacco companies lost, which Philpott said gives her government more confidence.

The need to protect public health "trumps realities of the industry," Philpott said. 

Slim packages "are very attractive to young women and girls and associate smoking with weight loss, thinness, sophistication and glamour, and it's simply wrong for an addictive, deadly product to be marketed in that way," said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.

Imperial Tobacco Canada said tobacco regulations in Canada are already among the strictest in the world and more tobacco regulations will do nothing to further reduce smoking rates.

Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and external affairs at Imperial College Canada, said the company continues to seek a dialogue with the minister. 

"If the government goes with plain packaging and takes away our ability to put our trademarks on our product, this [court filing] is … one of the options that we'll have to consider," Gagnon said. 

Cunningham said that the tobacco industry knows plain packaging will harm sales and that's why it is so strongly opposed.

"The tobacco industry's strategy over decades has been one of deny, deny, deny and oppose, oppose, oppose, and they have opposed every major piece of tobacco control legislation that we've done," he added.

Canada's national tobacco control strategy, which was renewed in 2012, will expire in March 2017.

With files from The Associated Press