`Light' snuffed out as cigarette label
Makers accept change under pressure
Non-smokers declare a partial win
Nov. 10, 2006. 06:59 AM
Cigarettes sold in Canada will no longer carry the terms "light" or "mild" on their packaging after anti-smoking groups argued the terms are misleading.
But tobacco companies could find other ways to convey the same message through package colouring, for example, anti-smoking lobbyists said.
In a move seen as a partial victory by health advocates, Canada's three largest cigarette makers voluntarily agreed yesterday to drop the words "light" and "mild" from their packaging by July 31, 2007.
"I am pleased that the tobacco companies have agreed to voluntarily discontinue the use of these descriptors," said Sheridan Scott, commissioner of the Competition Bureau, the federal consumer watchdog that negotiated the deal with the cigarette makers.
Anti-smoking groups had complained to the bureau that consumers were being misled by the words into thinking those brands were less harmful to their health than regular cigarettes. "Every major report that has been released in recent years says there are no health benefits from light and mild cigarettes. Yet, people still believe there are," said Gar Mahood, executive director of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, who led the complaint.
"Huge numbers of smokers perceive, incorrectly, that light or mild cigarettes are significantly safer and have switched to these brands instead of quitting altogether," added Ron Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society. "It's been a public health disaster."
The move will affect 79 brands of cigarettes, including popular sellers like duMaurier and Players, made by the three largest tobacco companies in Canada: Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc., and JTI-Macdonald Corp.
Some 5.4 million Canadians smoke, or roughly one in five people over 15, a rate that has been in decline for decades.
The companies said they volunteered to drop the terms knowing they would soon face a legal requirement to do so. The agreement contains no admission of guilt and has no impact on other legal issues the companies are facing, said Don McCarty, chief legal officer for the largest producer, Imperial Tobacco.
"We had already started to remove some of these descriptors from our packages anyway," said McCarty. "We knew a regulation to the same effect was coming down from Health Canada, probably in the spring of '08."
Rothmans gave the same reason. Officials with JTI-Macdonalds could not be reached for comment.
"We had already begun the process of removing the descriptors in response to Health Canada announcing regulations were coming requiring their removal," said Karen Bodirsky, spokesperson for Rothmans Benson & Hedges.
The companies said they would find other ways to let consumers know how to find their preferred brands without the descriptors, though they declined to be specific, citing competitive issues.
In other countries that have banned the terms, some tobacco companies have "modified the packaging so there are different colours or descriptors, such as `fine' or `classic'," said the cancer society's Cunningham.
Imperial Tobacco said it did not expect the ruling to adversely affect cigarette sales.
Canada joins 39 other countries, including members of the European Union, Australia and Brazil, in eliminating the terms. The issue is also being fought in the U.S. through the courts.
But anti-smoking advocates say Canada's consumer watchdog could have gone further. By settling the case voluntarily, the companies don't have to pay fines, publish retractions or stop using other deceptive packaging techniques, said the Non-smokers' Mahood.
The agreement comes three years after a group of 11 health lobbyists, including Toronto's then medical health officer Sheela Basrur and the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, asked the Canadian agency to declare the words misleading.
The anti-smoking group stepped up the pressure last month when it asked the Federal Court of Appeal to rule the consumer watchdog was failing to perform its "statutory duty" in this case.
The companies have agreed to begin phasing out the descriptors by the end of this year and complete the process by the beginning of next August, the bureau said. The agreement also covers tobacco used to roll your own cigarettes.
The three companies represent more than 90 per cent of the market.
The consumer watchdog plans to negotiate similar deals with other smaller tobacco companies, the agency also said.