Economic analysis

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.

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