HALIFAX – In a stunning reversal, the province backed away from a plan to ban flavoured tobacco in its controversial Bill 60, a move that left anti-tobacco advocates shocked and opposition politicians perplexed.
Bill 60 was initially introduced as a crackdown on tobacco. It would have banned the sale of flavoured tobacco, flavoured juice used in e-cigarettes, which is also known as e-juice, and the use of e-cigarettes in public places. It would have prohibited the use of hookah and shisha pipes in indoor public places. The changes would also have restricted vendors from selling e-cigarettes to people under the age of 19 and from promoting and advertising e-cigarettes.
With much opposition to the bill after a law amendments meeting Monday, N.S. Health Minister Leo Glavine told media Tuesday that he anticipated any changes to the bill would only involve amendments to e-juices.
But on Wednesday, in a perplexing and confusing move, the Law Amendments Committee and its Liberal majority moved an amended bill to the House that lifted the ban on flavoured tobacco and e-juices.
And there was little explanation as to why.
“I’m not 100 per cent sure on that,” said Liberal MLA Stephen Gough. “It would be better to talk to the chair.”
Liberal MLA Margaret Miller said the committee was listening to the concerns of people who made presentations during Monday’s meeting.
But when pressed that no one except lobbyists for the tobacco industry raised concerns about flavoured tobacco, Miller had little to say.
“We have made a ruling on this today and that’s the way it will be,” she said before ducking away from the media.
Move leaves anti-tobacco organizations shocked
The amendment and lack of explanation left the Canadian Cancer Society stunned.
Kelly Cull, the manager of government and partner relations for the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society, said she only heard of the news Wednesday morning and had not been consulted.
“We were shocked to hear there is going to be a removal and a backpedaling on the ban on flavoured tobacco,” she said.
“It’s completely disheartening. This is a component of the legislation that was entirely rooted in fact. The science has consistently told us that 50 per cent of teen tobacco users in this province use flavoured tobacco. The flip flop is astonishing.”
“The bill was introduced really, on principle, this was going to protect youth and protect youth initiation and tobacco. I wish I had a better understanding of the motivation here.”
She adds that the only opposition to the flavoured tobacco ban came from the tobacco industry.
“I think that says a lot,” she said.
Cull said the organization plans to keep pushing and lobbying the government to impose the ban.
Krista McMullin, the president of Smoke Free Nova Scotia, said she simply did not understand the government’s change of heart.
“We’re confused. I think we’re more confused,” she said.
“We did not see this coming, no.”
“Now to flip flop and say we’re not going to ban flavoured tobacco when the evidence was there…we’re perplexed.”
Opposition leaders fire back at Liberal government
PC MLA Alfie MacLeod had strong words for the Liberals over the reversal of the ban.
“I would say the official footwear of the Liberal party is flip flops,” he said.
“It’s part of what happens when you have a majority government and it’s part of what happens when you have a government that doesn’t consult and doesn’t listen. This government has proven it time and time again that they do not listen to the people that we are here to represent.”
NDP Health Critic David Wilson said the backpedaling on the ban was “perplexing”.
“I just can’t believe the government would take this approach and backtrack on a piece of legislation that was meant to support and I think protect Nova Scotians,” he said.
“This just shows that I think we have a government that doesn’t know what they are doing. They don’t have a plan and it’s just bewildering to me. It’s going to harm people. The change in this legislation to going to harm Nova Scotians and that’s at the feet of the government.”
Health minister responds to criticism
Glavine met with the media Wednesday afternoon to explain the change in the bill but it still left many questions unanswered.
He denied the government had caved to big tobacco, saying rather that the Law Amendments Committee thought it necessary to take a pause and do more consultation on the matter.
“Rather than dividing up what’s flavoured and what’s not in the flavoured category, we just decided to take a little bit more time. We know where we need to go. I know very clearly in my mind as minister and I think a consulting process is worth taking place,” Glavine said.
Glavine stood firm in saying the bill will eventually be one of the most progressive in the country, though he admitted flavoured tobacco is how tobacco companies try to hook young people.
“We now have a time period in which we can get this, I believe, 100 per cent correct and we’ll have a much stronger bill that will encompass all of these areas that have been brought forward and talked about through law amendments.”
Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief public health officer, has been a proponent of a ban on flavoured tobacco since Global News first began reporting on the issue last year.
But on Wednesday, he took a softer approach, saying public health is about having patience.
“This is a long-term issue. I’m comfortable with us hitting the pause button and doing some further work around a rational and reasonable approach on flavoured tobacco products and e-juices. We may actually come out stronger than at the end of the consultation than we were yesterday,” Strang said.
Strang emphasized he is “comfortable” with the bill that is moving forward, even though there may be potential for young people to get hooked on flavoured tobacco during the consultation process.
“I have every confidence we are still committed to protecting young Nova Scotians from youth-oriented flavoured tobacco products. In the grand scheme of things, a few months to get this done right doesn’t concern me from a public health perspective.”
The government now plans to hold consultations about whether certain flavours should be exempted from the ban on flavoured tobacco and e-juice.
Hookah pipes and shisha pipes still banned
No amendments were made to the ban of hookah pipes, shisha pipes or water pipes in indoor public spaces, a decision that left local business owners worried about the future of their stores.
On Tuesday, Global News shared worries some hookah lounge operators had about the impact of the bill.
Mohammad Ranjbar, operations manager for 1001 Nights, said the lack of amendments to the hookah portion of the bill came as a shock.
“The treatment is really unfair,” he said.
Ranjbar said he plans to take the government to court over the matter and will consult with other hookah lounges in the Halifax area to determine his next move.
However, Khalid Jaward, the owner of Aladdin Cafe, seemed resigned to the news.
“I’m not surprised. I feel angry and will likely lose my business,” he said.
If the bill moves forward in its current state, Jaward said he will likely move away from Nova Scotia and set up his hookah lounge in a different province.