Plain tobacco packaging is coming to Canada, the federal health minister confirmed on Tuesday, meaning that all cigarette products could soon look virtually identical.
Jane Philpott said the government will spend the next three months consulting with Canadians via an online questionnaire before introducing specific packaging regulations. She said the project has a personal resonance for her.
“As a family doctor … I’ve had many patients in my practice who have died from tobacco-related illness,” the minister said. “This is preventable and it has to stop.”
Philpott spoke with high school students at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in downtown Ottawa about plain packaging before addressing reporters.
“Brand identification is critical for tobacco companies,” she said. “I don’t believe that tobacco companies should be allowed to build that brand loyalty with children for a product that could kill them.”
Typically, plain packaging requirements only allow the brand name to be included in a pre-set size and font on the front of the box, and every pack must be the same colour. Existing health warnings and other legally mandated markers on the packs would remain in place.
As Global News reported earlier this spring, the Liberal government had been moving quickly behind the scenes to deliver on its pledge to introduce plain packaging into the Canadian market.
Other countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and France have already moved to standardize packaging in this manner, a tactic designed to diminish the visual appeal of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Canada’s cigarette packaging already bears some of the most prominent health messages in the world, with three-quarters of the space on Canadian boxes devoted to pictures and text discouraging smokers from lighting up. Cigarettes must also be kept out of sight on shelves.
Companies like Imperial Tobacco have argued these measures are enough to negate any marketing efforts, and that plain packaging could lead to more illegal, counterfeit products on the market. The companies have launched legal challenges in other countries to block the new requirements, but none have been successful.
A group of libertarian activists also showed up on Parliament Hill on Tuesday to protest the move, saying it “infantilizes” Canadians who choose to smoke and is “highly paternalistic.”
“Rather than focusing on policies that don’t work, we should be promoting safer alternatives like e-cigarettes,” said David Clement, North American Programs Associate with Students for Liberty.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) disagrees, and is pushing hard for the introduction of standardized packaging requirements. It released an 86-page report on the subject on Tuesday.