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Big Tobacco Big Winner as Harper Government Decimates Federal Tobacco Control Strategy

For Immediate Release

Ottawa - The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) reacted with anger and dismay to newly released details of the budget’s impact on the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy. Research clearly shows that the most effective way to reduce tobacco use is a well-funded and sustained comprehensive plan focused on policy change that involves a partnership between government and non-government organizations. “The Harper Government has ignored the evidence—slashing its tobacco strategy budget by one-third, narrowing the approach to just a few target groups, and ending the decades-long support of health groups through Contribution Funding,” said Melodie Tilson, the Association’s Director of Policy.

The Federal Tobacco Control Strategy was arguably the most successful health initiative ever undertaken by the federal government—in terms of lives saved, disease prevented, improvements to quality of life, health care cost savings, and cost-effectiveness. Smoking rates among Canadians age 15+ dropped from 24% to 17% between 2000 and 2010, representing 1.1 million fewer smokers and more than half a million averted tobacco-caused deaths. Rates of tobacco use among youth were cut in half during the life of the strategy, a feat achieved by few other countries. An analysis commissioned by Health Canada concluded that one person quitting smoking results in an average savings of $8,500 in avoided health care costs. This means that the federal government’s investment of $500 million over the ten years of the Strategy is expected to yield savings of $9.6 billion in direct health care expenditures alone—close to a 20-fold return on investment.

Why would the Harper Government gut a program that saves the government money, that saves the lives of Canadians, and that safeguards the health and well-being of young Canadians? “Consider who wins by this decision: the only winner—and they are big winners—is Big Tobacco,” asserted Garfield Mahood, founding executive director of the NSRA. “By slashing funding to health groups, the Harper Government has virtually assured that tobacco companies will have the upper hand in influencing federal policy decisions.” Historically the federal government funded health groups in part to help level the playing field and ensure that the bottomless resources of the tobacco companies did not completely drown out the voice of public health.

Without health groups shining a bright light on the aggressive and sustained lobbying by tobacco companies to block the new tobacco package warnings and their preferential access to policy-makers, the federal government would not have approved them. “The Harper Government’s initial decision to shelve the warnings in response to tobacco industry lobbying,” cautioned Tilson, “is only one example of what we can expect in future.”

Since the first major scientific report proving that smoking causes cancer was published 50 years ago, tobacco companies have sought to weaken, delay, or defeat progressive measures to protect the public from their deceptive marketing practices and their addictive and deadly products. In recognition of their destructive role, the global tobacco control treaty (the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) requires all Parties to enact measures to ensure that the tobacco industry has no influence on tobacco control policies. “Not only has the Harper Government failed to fulfill this treaty obligation, it has sent a strong signal to Big Tobacco that it is open for business,” said Tilson.

“Experience in other jurisdictions makes it clear that tobacco use rebounds when tobacco control weakens,” said François Damphousse, director of the NSRA’s Quebec office. “Tobacco control does not take place in a vacuum—public health efforts to reduce tobacco use continually meet with pushback from a well-resourced, creative, and predatory industry whose raison d’être is to maximize profits by addicting another generation of youth to tobacco products.” With the gutting of Grants and Contributions funding to national and regional health agencies, the Harper Government has severely weakened the ability of long-standing tobacco control organizations to have well-researched and meaningful input into tobacco control policies.

So, while the Australian government implements legislation requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain brown packaging, imposes substantial tobacco tax hikes, undertakes an intensive multi-year social marketing campaign, and increases support for smokers wanting to quit in order to achieve its ambitious goal of 10% prevalence by 2018, the Government of Canada abandons its successful comprehensive tobacco control strategy and its own target of a 12% smoking rate by 2011.

Despite significant progress, tobacco use remains the number one cause of disease and death—all completely preventable. “This is not the time to change course or abandon ship,” asserted Tilson. “Not when almost 5 million Canadians still smoke, including 22% of young adults.” Smoking rates can be driven much lower, but not without collaboration between the federal government and non-profit health organizations, and not without a sustained federal commitment to a comprehensive, well-resourced tobacco control strategy.

For further information:

Melodie Tilson, Director of Policy
613.230.4211 x3 (office)
613.882.6125 (cell)

Garfield Mahood, Founding Executive Director
416.928.2900 (office)
416.451.4285 (cell)

François Damphousse, directeur, bureau du Québec
514.843.3250 (bureau)
514.237.7626 (cellulaire)

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According to the latest results from the Canadian Community Health Survey, in 2014, 18.1% of Canadians aged 12 and older-about 5.4 million people were smokers. According to the same study, males smoked more than females: 21.4% vs. 14.8%.
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