Alberta’s new tobacco law targets flavoured tobacco, but exempts menthol

(WATCH: The Alberta government is cracking down on flavoured tobacco, but opponents say the health minister has caved to Big Tobacco. Su-Ling Goh reports.)

EDMONTON — Alberta has exempted menthol from its flavoured tobacco ban law that health groups once held up as an example for other governments to follow.

Health Minister Stephen Mandel said Thursday the legislation — to be phased in — will still protect young people from the dangers of other flavoured tobacco.And even with the menthol exemption, he said Alberta will have “the strictest ban on flavoured tobacco in Canada.”

After a year of study since the law was passed, the government decided that menthol wouldn’t be touched because the ban is aimed at reducing tobacco use by young people; and banning would also have affected adult smokers.

“You need to deal with the realities of the world and we made an effort to deal with flavoured tobaccos and I think that we are quite restrictive in that area,” Mandel said.

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“The decision was made that menthol would be one we leave out at this point in time.”

Health, medical and anti-smoking groups say exempting menthol is a mistake, because the flavour is the most popular with young people.

There are studies that say menthol soothes the throat, opens the airways and increases nicotine absorption into the bloodstream.

Angeline Webb of the Canadian Cancer Society said Alberta’s decision was very disappointing and thousands of young people will pay the price.

“Menthol is the most insidious flavour of tobacco products. It leads to addiction. It leads to initiation and youth who smoke menthol are much more likely to become long-term smokers than their non-menthol smoking peers,” she said.

“From a public health perspective, menthol is the most important flavour to focus on with reference to protecting kids.”

On Sept. 30, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Lung Association urged all health ministers across Canada to join Alberta in banning flavoured tobacco products, including menthol.

The federal, Ontario and Manitoba governments have balked at including menthol in flavoured tobacco ban legislation.

READ MORE: Health Canada cracking down on flavoured smokes

The Ontario Medical Association recently urged Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government to ban menthol cigarettes.

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Mandel said other parts of Alberta’s tobacco reduction strategy will help protect young people, including an immediate ban on smoking in vehicles with children present and a ban on selling tobacco to children.

The flavoured tobacco ban kicks in June 1, 2015, along with new restrictions to eliminate smaller packs of tobacco.

“Reducing the exposure of children to tobacco and reducing the overall use of tobacco products will have positive outcomes across all areas of health care,” Mandel said.

Specific details on some these measures were not immediately available.

Les Hagen of Campaign for a Smoke-Free Alberta said the menthol exemption is a mistake.

“We are pleased that there are new restrictions on sales to minors, we are pleased at the ban on smoking in vehicles with kids, but we are disappointed with the exemption for menthol cigarettes,” he said.

Critics accuse Health Minister Stephen Mandel of being swayed by tobacco lobbyists.

READ MORE: Alberta menthol cigarette ban may go up in smoke

“Today this government caved to big tobacco and it put the profit-making strategies of tobacco companies ahead of the health and safety of Alberta’s youth,” said NDP MLA David Eggen.

“Mandel needs to act to help protect and improve the health of Alberta’s youth, not to protect Big Tobacco’s bottom line,” said Eggen.

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Mandel maintains he has never spoken to a tobacco lobbyist.

Alberta is phasing in a law passed last fall to ban flavoured tobacco products, but has decided to exempt menthol.

“These changes include the strictest ban on flavoured tobacco in Canada,” said Health Minister Stephen Mandel.

Mandel says menthol wasn’t touched because the ban is aimed at reducing tobacco use by young people, but banning it also would have affected adult smokers.