MONTREAL — Tobacco companies are being accused of skirting highly publicized federal legislation — announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper — designed to keep kids from getting hooked on flavoured cigarettes.
Importers of those little cigarillos that come in flavours like vanilla, strawberry and peach have changed the size and characteristics on their product in order to get them in the country.
One anti-smoking advocate describes it as a direct reaction to the law and an attempt to circumvent it.
“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” according to Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society.
He’s concerned about the impact of the continued sale of the cigarillos which are sold under brand names like Honey T, Prime Time, and Bullseye.
During the 2008 federal election campaign, Harper promised to take action against tobacco marketing practices that targeted young people.
That led to a federal law which received support from all political parties and which came into force at the retail level last July 5.
The law defines little cigars as any product that weighs 1.4 grams or less and uses a cigarette filter.
So the cigars are now slightly heavier and the filters are gone. Extra tobacco now fills in the spot where the filters used to be.
Casa Cubana, a Montreal-based company that imports various brands, maintains its products remain legal because they do not qualify as “little cigars” under the new federal definition.
The product is now available only in boxes of 10 and 20. In the past, the little cigars were also sold individually — in coloured plastic cylinders at convenience stores right next to the cash register.
Cunningham, the senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, says flavoured cigarillos didn’t exist as a product in Canada 10 years ago, but that sales have skyrocketed.
“For us it’s absolutely unacceptable that you can flavour a tobacco product with fruit, ice cream and candy flavours to make it taste better and easier to smoke,” he said.
Cunningham also complains that unlike cigarette packs that carry health warnings on both sides, the little cigar packages have warnings only on the back.
But Luc Martial, who handles government affairs for Casa Cubana, says there’s no research that proves flavoured cigars attract kids to smoking. If that were true, he says, the federal government could have simply banned flavoured tobacco.
“There is absolutely no proof — in government or out — that suggests kids start or continue smoking because of flavours,” Martial said.
Martial also points to 2008 statistics from the Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey, which is co-sponsored by Health Canada and Statistics Canada.
“Clearly it shows that in terms of all tobacco products, the one tobacco product that kids are consuming the least of are flavoured little cigars,” Martial said.
He says statistics reveal that at its peak in 2009, the flavoured tobacco market in Canada represented less than half of one per cent of tobacco consumed in the country.
Martial says it’s “nonsensical” for people to be sounding the alarm and it’s “ridiculous” to suggest the product targets kids.
Martial admits that young people are still getting their hands on the cigarillos — though they represent only a tiny share of customers.
“These same kids are getting far greater access to non-flavoured tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and non-prescription drugs,” Martial added.