Ontario's anti-smoking program Leave The Pack Behind left behind by government cuts

Leave The Pack Behind said it helped 40,000 people quit smoking in Ontario over its 19 years in operation. It's shutting down later this month after Ontario's Progressive Conservative government dropped its funding in its latest budget.

Popular youth program learned it was dumped after it made a phone call

Staff at Leave The Pack Behind are winding down their operations at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., after learning their provincial funding has been dropped after 19 years. (Submitted by Heather Travis)

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After 19 years of helping young adults quit smoking at campuses across Ontario, Leave The Pack Behind learned in a recent phone call that its funding had actually ended weeks ago — a casualty of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's quest to reduce the province's $348-billion debt.

"It was shocking," said Kelli-an Lawrance, the group's director and also an associate professor of health sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Lawrance said LTPB had no warning its existence was in jeopardy. "We were invited to submit our funding proposal, as we are every year," she said.

But after several weeks of not hearing back, she called Ontario's Ministry of Health and learned the $1-million program was dropped from the recent provincial budget tabled by the Progressive Conservatives.

The reason? "A change in government," she was told.

In an email, a spokesperson for Ontario's health minister told CBC News that the decision to not renew the contract was to "remove duplication," pointing out that other anti-smoking programs continue to receive money, such as the STOP Program, at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Ottawa Model for Smoking Cessation, at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

But those programs may have a lot of catching up to do.

Not old fashioned approach to quit smoking

Leave The Pack Behind was first funded by the PC government of Mike Harris, whose "Common Sense Revolution" also saw deep funding cuts to programs. The program continued to receive financial support from successive Liberal governments in Ontario.

Since 2000, LTPB had expanded to 44 post-secondary institutions, worked with 35 public-health units and helped 40,600 people quit smoking, according to Lawrance. She credited the group's success to working with young people to design campaigns that appeal to their peers, as well as the fact LTPB offers support via social media campaigns, counselling, phone apps and online tips.

"We're not using old-fashioned techniques of just posters and brochures," she said.

The group was one of the lead authors of Make our Campus Smoke-free, a manual for students aimed at helping them organize anti-smoking campaigns tailored to the circumstances of their school and student body. The guide has also been adopted by students in other provinces.

Tobacco use remains the No.1 cause of preventable death in Canada, killing approximately 45,000 people each year. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Before coming across LTPB on Facebook, James Honey says he had tried — and failed — to overcome his heavy dependence on smoking.

"I smoked so much that I've had yellow fingers, and I rolled cigarettes with rolling papers when I didn't have any cigarettes. It was kind of like taking a toll on my life."

After receiving free nicotine patches from the group, the 25-year-old from Hamilton had his last cigarette in January. "And it's the best thing I've ever done," he said.

Honey also continued to follow the group's motivational posts on Instagram, with his success inspiring his partner to quit.

James Honey credits Leave The Pack Behind for helping him quit smoking after years of failed attempts. (Submitted by James Honey)
Honey said he can't understand why the province would cut its support to a successful program. "I think that's ridiculous. I think it's a really dumb decision," he said.

Tobacco use remains the No.1 cause of preventable death in Canada, killing approximately 45,000 people each year. It's estimated 5 million Canadians use tobacco products.

Ontario has been considered a leader in tobacco-cessation strategies, spending the most of any province per capita on getting its residents to quit, according to the Tobacco Endgame Cabinet, an Ontario-based group of public health experts, including the Canadian Medical Association and Heart & Stroke.

The group's goal is to get the national smoking rate down to less than five per cent by 2035. So far, only the federal government has endorsed that goal. Smoking rates are currently an estimated 16 per cent.

In its most recent report, Tobacco Endgame warns that "with recent research that smoking rates among youth in Canada may have actually increased, it is time for all of us to pull the alarm. We simply cannot go back in time and allow the health of our youth to be endangered."

Efforts to separate booze and smoking being undone

Despite Ontario's progress in past years, it still does not subsidize nicotine replacement therapy — a strategy used in other provinces and territories. No province has implemented a comprehensive smoking cessation strategy.

LTPB's Lawrance said targeting young adults in their early 20s — about 20 per cent of whom are smokers — will reduce the overall burden on the public health-care system. 

It seems counterintuitive to make drinking more accessible, while help quitting smoking is less accessible- Kelli-an Lawrance

"If you quit by 30, you reverse the damage of smoking. It's a return on investment," she said.

Another approach the group had recently launched, aiming to lower the number of young people who light up socially, was its recent campaign to "party without the smoke."

"We know drinking is a big trigger," Lawrance said.

That's why she said she's worried about the Ontario government's efforts to make alcohol more readily available in supermarkets and corner stores.

"It seems counterintuitive to make drinking more accessible, while help quitting smoking is less accessible."

Leave the Pack Behind — with its 28 full- and-part time staff — will cease operations as of the end of June.

But the employees are chronicling and collating their work, Lawrance said, in the hopes that another group can continue their efforts.

"They want to wrap things up in a way that we don't see 19 years of work disappear," she said. "They want that legacy."

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