Ban on flavoured cigarillos closer to becoming law
OTTAWA — A proposed ban on flavoured tobacco products cleared a Senate committee Wednesday without any amendments, allaying fears that Conservative senators planned to water it down at the request of the tobacco industry.
The Cracking Down on Tobacco Marketing Aimed at Youth Act passed the Senate committee on social affairs as is, and it's expected to receive royal assent after it passes the Senate as a whole later this fall.
In addition to banning "kiddie packs" of little flavoured cigars called cigarillos, the law will prohibit flavour and additives in tobacco products, with the exception of menthol. This means fruit- and candy-flavoured cigarillos available in flavours such as chocolate, grape and tropical punch will no longer be available for sale in Canada.
The law will also put an end to all tobacco advertising in outlets that may be viewed or read by youth.
The idea to ban the flavoured cigarillos began with a private members' bill from Manitoba NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis. It was picked up by the Conservatives, who made it a promise during the 2008 election and introduced the bill earlier this year.
Wasylycia-Leis said this all stemmed from a youth movement from kids who didn't like to see cigarillos made more appealing to kids by making them taste and smell like candy.
"Hallelujah," she said after the bill cleared the Senate committee. "I think it shows Parliament working at its best. It's not a perfect bill, but it is consistent with the principles established at the outset."
The bill passed the House of Commons unanimously in June with the backing of all three opposition parties, but lobbying by the tobacco industry in Quebec loosened the resolve of some Conservative MPs.
Philip Morris International, and its Canadian unit, Rothmans, argued the bill put at risk 300 jobs at its factory in Quebec City because it doesn't just ban flavours in cigarillos, but also captures some American blended cigarettes, made with sweeteners such as licorice, cocoa or vanilla, which soften the bitter taste.
At the senate hearing Wednesday, tobacco industry representatives said Canada should have gone the same route as Australia, which banned tobacco products that taste sweet or fruity, but not the additives that make the flavours, which is what Canada has done.
Debra Steger, an expert in international trade law and spokeswoman for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, said Health Canada put the bill together too fast and didn't "do its homework."
"They didn't consult with stakeholders and, as a result, it made a mistake," Steger said.
However, anti-smoking advocates told the committee they believed the tobacco industry was trying to blow smoke in the committee's eyes, and even use the legislation as an excuse to close the Quebec plant.
"It's inevitable Rothman's Benson and Hedges is going to close their plant," said Francois Damphousse, the director of the Quebec office of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association. "The only reason that plant is still here is to blackmail you."
A Health Canada official told the Senate committee Wednesday the bill is intended only to apply to the manufacturing of products intended for the Canadian market. That means American blended cigarettes manufactured in Quebec can continue to be exported, even if they contain any of the flavours and additives banned in Canada.
Some senators abstained from voting on some parts of the legislation, including Conservative Hugh Segal, who said some of his abstentions come because he didn't like the fact the industry hadn't been consulted enough.
The confusion in the Conservative camp continued all day Wednesday, and suggested signs of division between the Quebec caucus and the rest of the party.
Health Minister Leona Agglukaq emerged early in the day to say the Quebec caucus was onside with the bill. Prime Minister Stephen Harper put his weight behind the bill in the House of Commons in the afternoon.
"This government proposed legislation to protect children against tobacco," Harper said. "It's a measure that the Liberal government refused to do for years. We have also heard some concerns from industry, but at the same time, our priority remains to protect children against tobacco."
But Josee Verner, a Quebec MP and the minister of intergovernmental affairs, told the House of Commons she and others in her party were worried.
The legislation "is aimed at protecting our children," she said. "Our goal is the same, but our colleagues from Quebec, including myself, are concerned about the industry and we are trying to find a solution."
Verner represents a Quebec City riding where Rothmans, Benson & Hedges has a factory.
Health Canada and anti-tobacco advocates said an amendment to restrict the flavour and additives ban to products that taste sugary or fruity would create a big loophole in the law, and undermine the government's push to reduce youth smoking.
Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke Free Canada, also said the threat by Rothmans about job losses was just a scare tactic to sow divisions in the government's Quebec caucus. She called this a common tactic by the tobacco industry in their fight against government regulations.
Mia Rabson and Sarah Schmidt
Sept 30, 2009
Winnepeg Free Press and Canwest News Service