`Deceptive' wording could kill smokers, report says
Using words like "light" and "mild" on cigarette packages is likely killing Canadians, a federal advisory council says.
In a report due out today, the health minister's advisory council on tobacco supports a ban on those words, along with any other "misleading descriptors," and a public education campaign on the issue.
But the country's new health minister, Anne McLellan, said yesterday she is still undecided as to whether or not the words should be banned on cigarette packages.
"We haven't made a decision either way," a spokesperson for the minister, Farah Mohamed, said yesterday.
While committed to a general effort to reduce addiction to cigarettes, McLellan is still being briefed on tobacco issues and hasn't decided how she'll handle the file, her spokesperson added.
The ban on the words was one of the pet anti-tobacco projects of McLellan's predecessor, Alan Rock.
Rock had recently announced he planned to bring in regulations prohibiting the terms.
The report to be released today by the advisory council on tobacco says words like light and mild on cigarette packages are likely killing Canadians, and urges the government to move swiftly on those regulations.
"To the extent that false health-related reassurance delays quitting by concerned smokers, the deceptive use of the terms light and mild may already have contributed to the deaths of thousands of Canadians," says a copy of the document obtained by The Star. "Any delay in action to eliminate the `light' and `mild' deception will cost further lives.''
Rock, who was replaced by McLellan in last week's cabinet shuffle, was an aggressive critic of the tobacco industry and devoted much of his energies to cutting smoking rates in Canada. He often told reporters about how he'd kicked the habit years ago.
It's not clear whether McLellan, who has been spotted smoking at cocktail parties, will share Rock's personal passion for the issue.
The study comes as Canada's largest tobacco company released access to information documents it argues show that a panel advising the council was stacked with biased experts who ignored evidence suggesting lower-tar cigarettes are less dangerous than regular versions.
"It's clear from this that it was unfair," said Yves-Thomas Dorval, head of public affairs for Imperial Tobacco.
He said the documents also demonstrate officials adopted a strategy to "demonize" cigarette makers by trying to maximize the public's ill will towards them.
Imperial argues in its formal response to the government's plan to adopt regulations that a ban could increase the risk of harm to smokers.
"One potential result of the proposed regulation is that present smokers of light or mild cigarettes may switch instead to smoking cigarettes with a higher tar deliver, possibly increasing their risk of disease.
"If this occurs in Canada, any resulting increase in smoking-related diseases among such smokers will clearly be the government's responsibility,'' the company said.
Imperial points to internal health documents showing that many of the prospective experts proposed by anti-smoking groups wound up on the panel. "Noticeably absent from the panel are any scientists who have expressed views contrary to the panel's eventual (and unanimous) conclusions."
Other access documents show health department bureaucrats had doubts about the scientific support for the proposed ban, the company said.
In an e-mail dated last February, one official suggested there are few scientific reports demonstrating the health advantages of banning words such as light and mild.
"If we go the regulations way, we do face some serious problems (at this point anyhow) in terms of showing health benefits (mainly because of the paucity of supporting epidemiological data),'' he wrote.
The advisory council, however, appears convinced by the evidence that light cigarettes are as harmful as regular ones. It quotes experts who argue that smoke from highly ventilated cigarettes is easier to inhale and seems less harsh, giving smokers the impression they're less dangerous.
"Since smokers are likely to inhale larger volumes of this diluted smoke, they inhale no fewer harmful chemicals and often inhale them deeper into the lung," the report says.
"Once the government has addressed the issue of deceptive cigarette marketing, it should consider the issue of deceptive cigarette engineering that is misleading to smokers."
The panel said it considered a number of options for banning light and mild from packaging, but concluded new regulations under the Tobacco Act could be adopted quickly, easily be extended to cover other "misleading terms and design devices," and likely wouldn't be tied up in legal proceedings for a long time.
If Canada proceeds with a ban, it would be following similar moves by Brazil and the European Union.