Big Tobacco and mini marts take on the pot bill

At hearings in Ottawa, some heated words over how the government should handle the packaging and branding of pot

Marijuana is pictured in a vending machine at the BC Pain Society in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday Aug. 29, 2014. (Ben Nelms/CP)

How unsuspecting he was, that convenience store representative from Nova Scotia. Mike Hammoud began working at eight-years-old at his family’s shop, stepping on a milk crate to see over the counter, and he went on to serve stores like Marie’s Mini Mart as head of the Atlantic Convenience Stores Association. He appeared in colourful socks before the Standing Committee on Health this week to share his experience retailing cigarettes, with the sole motive, he claimed, of ensuring the nation’s safety and convenience.

“So you deny you lobby for tobacco companies?” demanded committee member Doug Eyolfson, a former emergency room doctor. “Yes or no?”

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While the federal government discerns how to legalize cannabis, its deliberations are laced with the interests of the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies care primarily about pot laws related to branding; if the government bans cannabis companies from brand their weed, it could extend the limits to tobacco producers, which need brand labels to keep customers loyal. Health critics warn that iconic brands and colour schemes encourage smoking, but tobacco lobbyists argue namelessness would confuse customers and let criminals forge fakes–arguments that the industry is forwarding through discreet channels.

“I’m not here because of them,” Hammoud said, although he admitted tobacco companies belong to his association. “Look, we lobby for every one of our members, and I don’t appreciate that we’re being tailored to one product and one product only. This is crazy.”

Hammoud claimed, “we have nothing to gain,” but they do have plenty to lose. Forty per cent of convenience store sales are tobacco, excluding gas and food services (although it used to be 70 per cent), he said, and Eyolfson mercilessly wondered “how much the tobacco companies have infiltrated, through themselves and through their lobby groups, this discussion on Bill C-45.”

READ: Ottawa’s dangerous hustle to legalize weed

Hammoud argued that brandless pot would prompt fraud. “As soon as you come up with a standardized pack…think about that for a moment, a standardized pack … what would stop them from duplicating that product?” When the government banned stores from displaying cigarettes in cases, “all that did was cause a lot of harm and pain for retailers,” Hammoud said. “You failed miserably on tobacco.”

But tobacco companies “always raise the bugaboo of contraband,” said another witness, and David Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo, brought proof from five court cases: “There is no evidence that plain packaging has increased contraband sales. None.”

He said brand names on drugs serve no public good, and they only persist on tobacco and alcohol due to “historical quirks.” Sleek-looking packs mislead women who want to lose weight, he warned, while minors fancy the fanciest fonts.

Show and tell began when witnesses Pippa Beck and Melanie Tilson produced samples of glamourous tobacco packages, one shaped like a lipstick tube. Representing the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, they explained how some brand names “connote aspirational lifestyles” like “Pura Vida” and “Everyone Does It.” Tilson said, “Big tobacco is the disease vector whose activities and behaviours are responsible for the entirely preventable epidemic that we continue to battle today.”

Verbal venom passed between witnesses, who were sitting close enough together they could’ve played Pat-a-Cake if they hadn’t been arguing about minors getting baked. “I have a bunch of children,” said Professor Hammond, “and when I leave cigarette packages laying around, they look at them and they can’t read them, but they know what it communicates.”

Smokers oppose such extreme graphics on weed. Audience member Romeo Tucci uses medical marijuana after having both hands amputated–he was a chef who got lost near Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and suffered frost bite. Tucci told committee Chairman Bill Casey that health warnings would be helpful, but images of charred lungs like on tobacco packs–“That’s just gross, man.”

READ: Big Tobacco and mini marts take on the pot bill

Numbers could replace namebrands, suggested Conservative member Marilyn Gladu, so shoppers could buy Cannabis No. 1129. “We don’t want to see a name of a marijuana brand called, ‘Everybody Does It,'” she said, and her colleague Don Davies described existing brands, “Kit Kat Kush, or Yosemite Sam and cannabis coming out of the guns.”

The committee considered labelling cannabis like apples–by type such as Macintosh or Gala–and compared it to packaging gum, though neither tree fruit nor Juicy Fruit were proper precedents for drugs.

“Listen,” said Hammoud in defence once more of branding, “I have never had an individual who was a non-smoker walk into any of my stores and see a pretty orange package and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to start [smoking].”

After the meeting Hammoud said of the committee members: They make us look like the bad people because we sell the product, when they make all the money. When you’re talking about little old convenience stores, they’re the perfect scapegoat.” He said his stores rent out movies, serve as post offices and create hubs where parents can safely send their children with change. “They’re the last standing bastion of a community.”

Hammoud never did answer the initial yes-or-no question, whether or not he was lobbying for tobacco companies. Corner stores might not need nicotine alone, but Hammoud, himself, was cornered.

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