OTTAWA — The government’s proposed ban on flavours and additives in cigars and cigarettes, a key promise delivered personally by Stephen Harper in the last election to protect “susceptible” children, is at risk of unravelling in the Senate.
The bill passed the House of Commons unanimously in June with the backing of all three opposition parties, but cracks in the Conservative and Liberal caucuses could mean the legislation is diluted in the upper chamber as early as Wednesday — against the objections of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
In addition to banning “kiddie packs” of little flavoured cigars called cigarillos, the Cracking Down on Tobacco Marketing Aimed at Youth Act proposes to prohibit flavour and additives in tobacco products, with the exception of menthol. The bill would also put an end to all tobacco advertising in outlets that may be viewed or read by youth.
After a summer campaign involving Philip Morris International and its Canadian unit, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, a group of parliamentarians led by Conservative MP Maxime Bernier now says the proposed ban on flavours is too broad because it captures some American blended cigarettes, made with sweeteners such as licorice, cocoa or vanilla to soften the bitter taste.
And some senators are pushing to add a clause to the bill to exempt these cigarettes, which make up less than 0.5 per cent of the tobacco market in Canada. They say the move won’t dilute the purpose of the legislation — to protect children from flavoured cigarillos popular among youth — but will shield retailers from a drop in sales of American blended cigarettes and protect the jobs of Rothmans workers in Quebec City.
The tobacco giant says the bill puts at risk the more than 300 jobs at the factory because it will have to rethink plans to expand production in Quebec City of global brands for export if the legislation passes without any amendments.
But an amendment floated last week by a Conservative senator from Quebec — to restrict the flavour and additives ban to products that taste sugary or fruity — would create a big loophole in the law, according to Health Canada and anti-tobacco advocates.
Health Canada’s assistant deputy minister for healthy environments and consumer safety last week told senators this proposal would result in a “loophole” with an ill-defined threshold for a sugary or fruity taste. Paul Glover also noted a basic “tenet of the act” is to treat “all product classes equally,” and gives time for importers of the tiny market share affected by the bill to reformulate their American blended cigarettes.
“It just makes the law unenforceable because it’s entirely subjective. You can’t go to a judge and say, ‘I think it smells fruity. Do you, your honour?'” added Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.
Callard, who will be testifying before a Senate committee on Wednesday alongside a University of Ottawa law professor appearing on behalf of Philip Morris and Rothmans, also said tobacco companies could use the exemption to make cigarettes taste better with additives like molasses and cocoa.
“My belief is they care because Canada has often been the forerunner on regulatory controls on tobacco,” said Callard.
“It’s a globalized market, so Philip Morris treats all regulations globally, so even if they don’t have an immediate business interest, they have a long-term interest in not being regulated.”
Callard added the Senate should have been better prepared for the tobacco company’s push-back.
“What I’ve observed in this process, even though senators are seasoned politicians and they’ve been around the block several times, they forget the whole system. The companies will play these cards in a sequence and that they should be prepared. So I think that this government was caught off-guard by the cleverness of Philip Morris and by this willingness to create caucus dissent.”
During the last election campaign, Harper threw his weight behind the tobacco reform package.
“As a parent, I was appalled to see tobacco being marketed in a way that is so enticing to children. Flavouring and packaging them like candy, gum or a fruit roll-up, this just isn’t right. This practice can’t continue. We will not tolerate it,” Harper declared last September about fruit- and candy-flavoured cigarillos during a campaign stop.
Cigarillos are the fastest growing tobacco product on the market, with sales jumping from 53 million units in 2001 to an estimated 469 million last year. According to Health Canada, about a quarter of youth age 15 to 17 have tried the little cigars, available in flavours such as chocolate, grape and tropical punch.
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