Canadian cigarette packaging bears some of most prominent health warnings

TORONTO – When it comes to warning people about the dangers of cigarettes, Canada’s leading cancer researcher says we’re not just blowing smoke.

The Canadian Cancer Society says Canada’s cigarette packaging bears some of the most prominent health messages in the world.

The society says three-quarters of the space on Canadian packaging is now devoted to pictures and text discouraging smokers from lighting up.

That places Canada fourth in a ranking of 198 countries, up sharply from a 15th-place finish two years ago.

Australia took top spot by covering 82.5 per cent of its packages with health warnings, followed by Uruguay and Sri Lanka.

The society says Canada has regained much of the ground it lost in recent years, but says the country’s health policy makers still have some lessons to learn from the global leaders.

Senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham said much of Canada’s progress comes as a result of federal regulations that went into effect on June 19.

The new rules require tobacco companies to cover 75 per cent of cigarette packages with pictures depicting the effects of lung cancer and text enumerating the health risks associated with smoking.

“The best way to communicate with smokers about the health risks is to see the package,” Cunningham said in a telephone interview from Seoul, South Korea.

“They have it in their hand every day. A picture says a thousand words and … conveys a message that is very memorable and has a lot of impact.”

Some 2011 data from the society suggests that Canadians are heeding warnings to butt out. A survey found that 17 per cent of Canadians identified themselves as smokers, down from 24 per cent a decade earlier.

While higher tax rates and more widespread restrictions on public smokers played a role in the decline, Cunningham credits photographic health warnings for accelerating its pace.

At the time those warnings were introduced in 2001, Canadian policy makers were seen as trailblazers in the anti-smoking campaign.

Canada was the first of the countries surveyed to compel manufacturers to display the graphic images, kicking off a trend that 62 other countries have since followed.

Cunningham said Canada rested on its laurels for several years after introducing picture warnings and saw its ranking fall out of the top 10 as other countries adopted more aggressive tactics.

Australia, in particular, has emerged as an international benchmark for tobacco warnings, he said.

Cunningham cited the adoption of plain packaging laws for much of that country’s success. Those regulations forbid tobacco companies from displaying logos or other brand identifiers on their packages. Manufacturers went to court to fight the regulations, but lost their final appeal in August.

Anti-smoking advocates in Canada have urged Ottawa to adopt similar measures, which Health Canada has previously said it has no plans to pursue.

Cunningham said a more pressing concern is to expand existing efforts to curb smoking.

The prominent warnings that have boosted Canada’s ranking currently only grace packages for cigarettes and little cigars,

Cunningham said the federal government has previously committed to imposing the labels on all other products such as flavoured cigars and pipe tobacco, but has not yet made a move to do so.

“Many of these product categories are attractive to kids,” Cunningham said.

“It’s essential that we have these new warnings on all types of tobacco products to protect youth and reduce smoking, and that’s something that would be very feasible in the short-term,” he added.