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Canada: industry excuses over health warnings

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We have all heard some good stories from the tobacco industry about how tobacco control legislation will wreck a country's thriving economy overnight, throw millions of people out of work, and usher in a long, dark era of totalitarianism. We have been warned about the imminent collapse of the health services, not from the burden of disease caused by tobacco, but from the loss of smokers paying all that tax, then selflessly laying down their lives for their country before they needed to draw their pensions. Mass arrests and torture are evidently just round the corner for those hapless citizens who choose to practise any innocent and pleasurable pastimes in lands where tyrannical politicians have banned tobacco promotion.

In the early 1980s, a British health minister told the tobacco industry, during talks about a new self regulation agreement, that he would like to see the health warning on the cigarette pack augmented by a printed warning on the cigarette itself. If a cigarette can carry the brand name, as in many cases it does, he argued that printing “SMOKING KILLS” or some other such message along the length of the paper wrapper should be no problem. A special advisor had warned him to expect the industry representatives to hit the roof, because the pure, white cylinder was a vital part of the compendium of visual and creative tricks that for so long kept smokers' perceptions of the risks of smoking so far removed from reality. On the day he dropped the bombshell, numbed silence was the only immediate response from the tobacco pushers, but what no-one could have foreseen was the breathtaking audacity of the industry's considered response at the next round of meetings. Apparently, what had really been bothering these much maligned people was the fear that if they were forced to add all that black printing ink to their product, it might cause carcinogens to be generated as the paper burned down during smoking!

Earlier this year, Canadians were treated to a similarly absurd response from the industry during parliamentary discussions about the striking new health warnings being proposed there (seeTobacco Control1999;8:356–61). The technology needed to portray such detailed colour images, such as the none too attractive one on oral cancer, for example, demanded printing machinery so complex that the massive printing job would have to be placed outside Canada. So now printers' jobs were at stake, and the government would be solely responsible. Printing is apparently a major industry in Canada, serving not only the needs of Canadians, but a much wider market overseas. Even ignoring the industry's tendency to vastly exaggerate the number of jobs dependent on certain processes when fighting an effective health measure, it is hard to see how a large industry would suffer more than a small one for the loss of a fixed amount of printing. Nevertheless, the creative wing of the tobacco industry must have celebrated an apparently successful new lobbying device, as politicians contemplated whether they could face thousands of angry redundant printers marching on the parliament building. Their celebrations were short lived, however. A few days later, a health advocate supplied a parliamentarian with a strip of cardboard of the type used for making cigarette packs, nicely printed with the proposed new warnings—by a Canadian printing company. And further down the line the industry reverted to more traditional methods: if the regulations were agreed (they later were), they would simply take the printing jobs out of the country. Somehow, it felt almost reassuring to be back to good old blackmail.