In contemplating the construction of a fair world for its younger generation, Canada finds itself caught in a war against smoking cigarettes. In 2001, the country became the first in the world to legislate a requirement for tobacco companies to print pictorial warnings on the outside of cigarette packages.
On August 1, a fresh set of Health Canada regulations came into effect that requires manufacturers to plaster new, more graphic, and more insistent messages onto every cigarette pack that a smoker or curious starter picks up. Using a phased approach, most measures are set to hit the Canadian market within a year. By the end of July 2024, all ‘king-size’ cigarettes will have hit the market with individual warning messages like “poison in every puff,” “cigarettes cause cancer,” and further warnings highlighting the dangers of smoking to children and young people. Regular-size cigarettes with tubes and tipping paper will follow by the end of April 2025. The goal is to fulfill Canada’s Tobacco Strategy and the ambitious target of reaching less than five per cent tobacco use in Canada’s population by 2035.
As a non-smoker, I believe in the power of nudging consumers into making certain choices about the products of their desire. In the age of climate change, environmental sensitivity, and sustainable development goals, policies that use visual signals to the public have come in handy in creating a culture of sustainable living and environmental friendliness.
For example, with more trash cans in public spaces that have labels about which bin plastics, food waste, and paper each go in, and warnings of fines against littering, people have found it easier to foster a practice of proper waste disposal. We have so much information and visual warnings about the damage that plastics are doing to the ocean and the land that we feel guilty about using plastic straws and polythene bags.
The struggle against smoking is also concerned with sustainable living, and if there’s one lesson that rings true, it’s that changes to human behaviour are the key to maintaining a sustainable world. However, these must be backed up by a wealth of information on healthier choices and the consequences of continuing with habits that do not serve you or the people you love. More important still are the nuanced, subliminal, and sometimes overt policies that manipulate a consumer’s agency and direct their heart and mind into making specific choices for the general benefit of themselves and the society they inhabit.
Carolyn Bennett, the former associate minister of health and the minister of mental health and addictions, supports the stricter take on cigarettes because “tobacco continues to kill 48,000 Canadians each year.” She wants to see health warning messages become “virtually unavoidable” as a startling reminder of the consequences of smoking. Then-Minister of Health Jean Yves-Duclos cited tobacco as Canada’s leading preventable cause of disease and premature death in support of the new measures against smoking.
Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, and Doug Roth, the CEO of Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, both applauded the new legislation as a new world precedent. The goal here is to secure the lives of young people by bringing them face-to-face with the inevitable dangers. Cunningham highlights that, for regular smokers and youth who experiment by ‘borrowing’ cigarettes from their friends, the sight of a throat or lung torn apart by cancer or the strong wording against smoking will prompt dialogue and initiate critical thought.
All of this is well and good in a country overrun by the good intentions of its leaders, but I am curious where else we can go from here and how the policy could cause other problems. For example, the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco warned that young people will likely be more attracted to cheaper, colourful black market cigarettes free of health warnings and funnel more money to illegal cigarette distributors.
Furthermore, in the past, the country’s fight against contraband tobacco and organized crime has led the police to wrongfully target Indigenous populations on reserves who have utilized tobacco as an economic engine out of necessity when other industries were illegalized on reserves and shut down by the federal government. Tobacco has enabled Indigenous communities to prosper against the grain while being free of a tax burden to the government. The new legislation is a concern for Indigenous businesses and the government’s impending need for someone to blame in the event of a faltering policy.
More so, I wonder if the government should take the same action against alcohol, given that alcoholism increases the risk of seven different types of cancer. Research shows a bottle of wine a week compares to five cigarettes for men and 10 for women — and yet it causes no commotion.
Divine Angubua is a third-year student at UTM studying history, political science, and creative writing. He is the editor-in-chief of With Caffeine and Careful Thought and a staff writer at The Medium. He is the associate comment editor of The Varsity.