Tim Lince

Canada has signalled its intention to remove trademarks from tobacco packaging, just six months after the United Kingdom and Ireland approved plain packaging legislation. The newly elected Liberal government in Canada has vowed to pursue an “activist” healthcare agenda, and has confirmed that plain packaging is a “top priority”.

Canada has often been ahead of other countries with respect to restrictions on tobacco marketing. In 2001, for example, it became the first country to introduce graphic health warnings on cigarette packages. Currently, warning labels take up 75% of cigarette packaging and retail outlets are not permitted to put cigarettes on display. However, it seems that the country is now set to go further and become the fourth country in the world (after Australia, Ireland and the UK) to increase that percentage to 100, by completely removing all company logos, colours and brand design on tobacco product packaging.

At last month’s Canadian general election, the Liberal government clinched victory on an electoral platform that included a pledge to introduce plain packaging. A resounding win at the election means the Liberals have a majority government, so there should be no governmental impediment to fulfilling its electoral promises. New prime minister Justin Trudeau has since written a mandate letter to incoming health minister Jane Philpott that includes a “top priority” to “introduce plain packaging requirements for tobacco products, similar to those in Australia and the UK”. Responding to her mandate in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen last week, Philpott claimed that there is “strong evidence” the changes will reduce the number of people who smoke, adding: “It’s widely known, of course, the tremendous health risks associated with smoking. So I think we will forge ahead with that to make sure that we try to decrease the impact of smoking and decrease smoking rates in Canada.”

Of course some countries have pledged to introduce plain packaging in the past and have yet to do so (such as India and New Zealand). In fact, a former Canadian Liberal prime minister, Jean Chrétien, promised to look at the feasibility of plain packaging over 20 years ago. So what makes this time different? According to Rob Cunningham at the Canadian Cancer Society, there is little doubt that plain packaging is now an inevitability. Talking to World Trademark Review, he says: “Plain packaging will be implemented in Canada. The tobacco companies will use legal arguments when opposing plain packaging – this is a typical industry approach. But the industry will not be successful in blocking plain packaging. It is worth noting that Canada is a third party in the Australian plain packaging case at the WTO, with Canada’s position being one that is supportive of Australia. Ultimately, tobacco companies should not be able to make their products more appealing through attractive packaging. It makes no sense, for example, that tobacco companies should be able to use feminine pastel colours or mountain scenes as part of packaging.”

There are, of course, critics to the proposals. Talking to the Globe & Mail, Eric Gagnon, head of corporate affairs for Imperial Tobacco Canada, stated: “I don’t think anybody walks into a convenience store today and says ‘you know what, this brand looks cool, I will start smoking it’. The root of the problem is peer pressure, and it’s the environment in which people grow up, and that’s where the government needs to put a lot of effort.” Imperial Tobacco Canada could be one of the companies that ends up opposing plain packaging through legal measures. But it’s worth remembering that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) effectively blocks the tobacco industry from launching trade disputes against governments implementing plain packaging. So if the TPP is approved and implemented before plain packaging in Canada, legal action could prove a more difficult avenue to pursue.

For those worried about the ‘slippery slope’ of plain packaging - the claim that it will inevitably spread to other product areas - it is worth highlighting that Philpott’s health mandate also includes proposals for “new restrictions on the commercial marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children”. While not in the same limitative ballpark as plain packaging, it demonstrates that marketing and branding restrictions in industries beyond tobacco are also on the table in Canada.

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