How the Conservatives are gutting tobacco control

And why it doesn’t makes sense–even financially


Trevor Haldenby/Flickr

About a month ago, Ottawa quietly announced it was slashing $15 million from Canada’s Federal Tobacco Control Strategy, one of the many cuts to the federal budget. Haven’t seen it in the headlines much? It might be because this is far from the first time the federal Conservatives have swung the axe at the national tobacco control budget. Over the last six years, funding for the FTCS has shrunk by nearly 60 per cent, down to $28 million in fiscal 2012 from $68 million in 2006.

This year’s cuts include $16 million in grants and contributions that used to help fund over 70 national and regional anti-smoking NGOs. As a result, the government is now planning to spend only 0.9 per cent of the $3 billion in annual tax revenues it collects from tobacco sales on measures to educate Canadians about its health hazards and monitor the industry. That works out to roughly $0.81 for every Canadian. To put that in perspective, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends government spending of $12 per capita to sustain a comprehensive tobacco control program.

Health groups and tobacco control advocates, naturally, are appalled. “Consider who wins by this decision: the only winner—and they are big winners—is Big Tobacco,” says Garfield Mahood, founding executive director of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association. “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.”

Unperturbed, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq noted in a press release about the forthcoming cuts that “Canada is a world leader in tobacco control,” adding, “our government is proud of the work we have done.” Most of the country, the document continued, seems to have kicked the habit: Time to spend our money on other things. (Aglukkaq did, however, concede that smoking rates are out of control among aboriginal populations. The government’s efforts, she promised, would zero in on them. Perhaps the minister meant the government will finally issue that new strategy it promised in 2006 after it “suspended” $10 million in annual funding for the First Nations and Inuit Tobacco Control Strategy.)

Aglukkaq’s argument seems, to put it mildly, unpersuasive. Never mind that the Conservatives have been riding the Liberal coattails on the tobacco control portfolio since they entered office in 2006–Canada’s reputation as a world leader was built long before Harper. Nonetheless, it’s true that Canada’s tobacco control program has been extremely successful. Tobacco use among youth, for example, has been halved during the life of the FTCS, a feat few other countries have managed, and Canada in general has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. That, however, doesn’t mean new generations won’t pick up the old vice. Besides, five million Canadians still smoke, and taxpayers are still facing a yearly health care bill of $4.4 billion for treating lung, throat, and mouth cancers, heart and cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, blindness, and many other smoking-related illnesses.

According to Health Canada, every smoker who quits spares the system $8,500 in health care costs. As the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association put it: “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 twenty-fold return on investment.”

Dr. Andrew Pipe, chief of the Division of Prevention and Rehabilitation at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, calls the Conservatives’ lack of imagination towards tobacco control “staggering.” “Our government is receding from its obligation to ensure we create a community free from tobacco. It strikes me as sadly ironic that if we were to apply an inflationary tax increase of $2 per carton of cigarettes, we would have more than enough resources to continue Canada’s tobacco control program in its present form,” he muses.

Staggering indeed.


How the Conservatives are gutting tobacco control

  1. If the program is so effective, why does Bev Oda not only continue to smoke, but feel no qualms about upgrading hotels on the taxpayer dime to get a suite where she can suckle on big tobacco’s smoky teat in peace?
    Yes, I know, she repaid the difference – a year later, when she was caught red handed and had no other escape – how noble.

    • I just cannot understand why she didn’t downgrade instead. I mean, would it really have been such a bigger expense for the car and driver to carry her even an extra 20 kilometres? I’ve never been to London and have no idea of hotels there so have no idea of any extra distance it would entail.

    • Why the hell is Aglukkaq the Health Minister when they have such an obvious choice as Oda?

  2. They’re in the pocket of Ethical Bitumen, why not Big Tobacco? If there is any business that makes an easy buck but passes a huge expense down to taxpayers in the end, the Harper Cons embrace it on principle.

    Next comes the crony capitalism: raping taxpayers by privatizing government with no-bid contracts that increase spending.

    If fact they already started with the AECL: they paid $15M to get rid of the company worth $1.1B in assets (which was a world leader in medical isotopes and developed partial technology to convert Candu reactors to burn thorium.) With that sale they socialized $4.5B in liabilities.

    Harper is always on the look out for taxpayers — looking for new ways to fleece them.

  3. That nasty Harper and his nasty gov’t. Slashing from a typical accomplish nothing make work bunch of do nothing worthless civil servants.

  4. What assumptions go into the $8500 figure? I mean if somebody dies of prostate cancer at 85 instead of lung cancer at 65, does the healthcare system really save money? This is not to mention that the same hypothetical person would collect a great deal less from the CPP (not to mention using every other government service for 20 years, and probably not working/paying taxes). Smoking is unhealthy, and people have many reasons to quit, but I don’t really buy the idea that it is a fiscal boon.

    • Plus does that figure include lost tax revenue?

      From this table (http://www.nsra-adnf.ca/cms/file/pdf/120424_map_and_table.pdf) around 2/3 of cigarettes retail cost is taxes to either provincial or federal governments. So at one $10 pack of cigarettes a day the government receives $8500 in revenue in around 3 and a half years.
      Plus the taxes that stores that sell cigarettes pay, that cigarette manufacturers pay etc. etc.

  5. Classic neo-con thinking: We’ve solved the problem…nothing to see here.

  6. Its not the governments place to save us from ourselves. Escaping the clutches of an aspiring nanny state is at the heart of small c conservatism and Harper is doing the right thing.

    • It costs $$$ for healthcare to care for the idiots who smoke. At the end of the day publicly funded healthcare isn’t going to disappear entirely from this country. So we all will be paying for this out of our wallets later.

    • Ah, but it IS the government’s place to protect us and our children from those that threaten our health and safety; be it SARS, BPA, lead in paint and plastic or second hand smoke.
      I also wonder if the many smoke induced household, grass and forest fires are ever added into the equation when they assess the cost society pays for this habit.
      At least we aren’t subsidizing farmers to grow tobacco any more … Or are we?

  7. I disagree with you Garfield Mahood, the BIG WINNER is the government. Only around 20% of the retail cost of tobacco involves the product, the balance is tax, therefore if ‘big tobacco’ is a big winner, then the government is 4X the big winner.
    It amazes me that no one seems to catch on.. If you could END heroin use in Canada by busting ONE dealer… would you? Well tobacco supposedly costs 10 times more that all illicit drugs combined to health care. The ONLY dealer in Canada is the federal government.
    Was nice to see all of the non-smokers wishing to persecute those who do smoke take the sucker bait though…

  8. That’s the best thing I’ve heard in years. It’s quite simple, if there was any sincere desire to stop people from smoking all they would have to do is make the tobacco companies remove all the deadly chemicals, and use organic non addictive tobacco. It’s available, so no excuses please.

  9. education is for schools, not to let nanny-state bureacrats live off of others.

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