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Opinion: Raise age to legally buy tobacco to 25 years old

National non-smoking week will be observed the week of Jan. 17 with one of the stated goals being a smoke-free Canadian society. The toll of nicotine addiction continues to be significant. The annual death toll is staggering — about 6,000 British Columbians, about 40,000 Canadians and worldwide about six million. The Conference Board of Canada estimates the annual economic costs of smoking in Canada to be $11.4 billion.

Significant progress has been made in reducing the percentage of smokers, however, progress has stalled and has even reversed for 19 to 25 year olds. And yes, this is an addiction that targets our youth with 99 per cent of smokers starting to smoke before age 25, 90 per cent before age 19. Government regulations have assisted but more needs to be done.

Government should cease providing financial support to an industry that markets the glamour of smoking. In B.C. alone, the entertainment industry is provided with about $500 million in tax breaks while it continues to push the coolness of smoking to youth. Only entertainment that is free of smoking images should qualify for tax breaks.

Retailer compliance requires significant improvement. Health Canada reports that 28 per cent of minors buy tobacco directly from retailers. Fraser Health spends about $265,000 annually on compliance audits — clearly this is insufficient funding. However, why are health-care dollars spent on retailer compliance? Shouldn’t retailers, who profit from tobacco sales, pay for compliance audits? An annual retailer licence fee of $1,000 would generate about $6 million annually to fund increased compliance audits. Further, the government should implement a moratorium on new licences until retailers can demonstrate 100-per-cent compliance.

Many health consequences of tobacco aren’t well understood by the public. For example, research has found that nicotine primes the developing brain of youth for addiction to other illicit substances. A 2012 U.S. study found that 87.9 per cent of 18 to 34 year olds who had ever used cocaine had smoked cigarettes before using cocaine.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a Sept. 4, 2014, study, by Dr. Eric Kandel and Dr. Denise Kandel. They found that “nicotine acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure is from smoking tobacco, passive tobacco smoke or e-cigarettes. More effective prevention programs need to be developed for all products that contain nicotine, especially those targeting young people. Our data suggests that effective interventions would not only prevent smoking and its negative health consequences, but also decrease the risk of progressing to illicit drug use and addiction.” Given the recent spike in drug-overdose deaths, protecting our youth from nicotine addiction has increased urgency.

So what is the medically appropriate age to legally buy tobacco if we want to achieve a smoke-free society? Quite simply it’s 25. The empirical evidence is clear, only one per cent of smokers start smoking after age 25. Why the dramatic drop-off at that age? Dr. Frances Jensen answers that question in her book, “The Teenage Brain” — the rational part of young brains isn’t fully developed until age 25 or so — a conclusion supported by other researchers. And for those minors who are unable to purchase directly from retailers, their source of tobacco are friends who are old enough to buy tobacco (and in most cases are under age 25).

The evidence is clear, the war on tobacco isn’t yet won.

Art Van Pelt is a former food-retailing executive and the founder of Susan’s Battle, a family advocacy group seeking government action to better protect youth from nicotine addiction. A teenage smoker, Susan smoked for 20 years. At the time of her lung-cancer diagnosis Susan had been smoke-free for 23 years. Susan passed away seven weeks after her initial diagnosis of Stage 4, non-small-cell lung cancer at age 58. Former smokers never reduce their risk of lung cancer to that of a never smoker.

Consultation Summary: “Plain and Standardized Packaging” for Tobacco Products

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Flavoured tobacco ban looms

Menthol cigarettes, along with most other flavoured tobacco products, will no longer legally be sold in Ontario starting in the New Year.

Changes to the Smoke Free Ontario Act will result in the sale of clove cigarettes and most menthol-flavoured tobacco products being banned as of Jan. 1.

Klaus Larsen, a tobacco enforcement officer with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, said the ban is the latest step in the province’s crackdown on flavoured tobacco products.

“What statistics show is that young people are drawn to flavours,” Larsen said.

“What menthol does is cover the harsh flavour of tobacco products so we’re seeing it’s popular among those under the age of 25 and the ban will steer away the younger population from tobacco products.”

The first ban began last year on New Year’s Day and covered all flavoured tobacco products except for some flavoured cigars and a temporary one-year exemption for menthol and clove flavoured products, which is now expiring.

Larsen said the health unit has inspected vendors and have not found any compliance issues.

“The retailers tell us they’re still getting requests for the tobacco products and often times when the flavoured tobacco products are not available the customer will walk away from purchasing any tobacco product,” Larsen said.

One concern is more people switching to vaping, or e-cigarettes, to use flavoured products.

Larsen compared the current state of the vaping industry to “big tobacco” before governments began implementing regulations and restrictions.

“I think what’s been proven statistically is that vaping is less harmful than smoking but you have to remember that less harmful does not mean harmless,” he said.

“The other thing you have to remember is the fact that we don’t know what the long-term effect is of vaping.”

NDP give update on tobacco industry lawsuit

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley says the NDP government is pleased with the progress being made on its legal action against the tobacco industry, though any resolution to the case is likely years away.

In 2012, the former Progressive Conservative government filed suit against 14 Canadian and international tobacco firms, seeking $10 billion to recover smoking-related health costs.

The process around the Tory government’s decision to hire the International Tobacco Recovery Lawyers consortium as counsel on the case remains mired in controversy and under review, but Ganley said that the NDP is satisfied with the work done by the firm so far.

“The quality of the work itself has been very good,” she said in a recent interview.

“So at this point it would cause further delay and be quite costly to change counsel at this point. And so I don’t think it would be in the best interest of taxpayers to do that.”

British Columbia’s conflict of interest commissioner, Paul Fraser, is currently reviewing the actions of former premier Alison Redford in relation to questions of potential conflict of interest around her awarding of the tobacco lawsuit legal contract as justice minister in 2010. A key part of the consortium is Calgary-based JSS Barristers, a firm where her ex-husband is a partner.

Redford was cleared by then-ethics commissioner Neil Wilkinson when the matter was investigated in 2013, but a report this spring from former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci cited concerns that Wilkinson didn’t have all the relevant information. He recommended Alberta’s ethics commissioner take another look but a potential conflict led to the appointment of B.C.’s commissioner.

Ganley said she couldn’t comment on how that report may ultimately affect the government’s legal action against the tobacco companies but reiterated the NDP’s support for the case.

“We do believe in the merits and the cause of the case and I think it’s potentially worth an enormous amount of money to the taxpayers of Alberta, so it’s definitely worth pursuing,” she said.

Among the allegations in the government’s lawsuit, none of which have been proven in court, is that the companies deliberately designed tobacco products to be highly addictive, deceived Albertans by minimizing the products’ addictiveness and harm, and falsely denied the health risks of exposure to tobacco products.

Ganley said the defendants in the case filed statements of defence in the spring.

The next step will be the exchange of documents, then the questioning phase.

“These things typically take a while,” said Ganley.

“There’s going to be an enormous amount of documents.”

It has been slow going for legal action against the tobacco industry by Canadian provinces since British Columbia filed the first lawsuit in 1998, said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society in Ottawa.

There are 12 provinces and territories that have enabling legislation allowing them to launch lawsuits and 10 have legal action already underway.

“There are no trial dates set for any of the cases. The cases that are the most advanced it seems are B.C. and New Brunswick, in terms of the pre-trial discovery process,” said Cunningham, noting that he has no indication the controversy around Alberta’s legal contract has affected its case.

“It’s incumbent for provincial governments to get these cases to trial.”

In 1999, the U.S. tobacco industry settled with 46 U.S. states by agreeing to pay almost $250 billion over 25 years. That deal featured restrictions on how tobacco products were marketed and sold.

Cunningham said a case to watch in Canada is a Quebec class action lawsuit that awarded C$15.5 billion in damages to plaintiffs from tobacco companies.

The case was appealed and heard at the Quebec Court of Appeal in November, with a decision expected in 2017.

Cunningham noted many of the same documents and issues that were in play in the class action trial will be at issue in the provincial cases.

“The Quebec case demonstrates overwhelmingly the tobacco industry can be beaten,” he said.

Smoking out Canada’s Indigenous cowboys

Cigarettes produced on Canada’s native reserves are at the heart of ‘multinational’ smuggling

With Donald Trump only weeks away from his inauguration, talk of walls along the Mexican border have – for the moment at least – fallen from the agenda. But another border is fast becoming a problem.

The 3,000-mile frontier with Canada has seen smuggling involving organised crime develop on a potentially global scale, with both governments apparently powerless to do anything about it.

The smugglers’ commodity is tobacco, mostly ready-rolled cigarettes, boxed and branded but untaxed, uncontrolled, and being sold at barely one third of the legal price, particularly in Canada where taxes are higher – and often to schoolchildren.

The problem has been growing since it took off in 2008. The Canadian government claims to have seized to date 252 million contraband cigarettes and 4.3 million untaxed cigars, but reckons that represents just the tip of the illegal tobacco mountain.

Canada is due to legalise cannabis totally next year and there are hopes that a “pot tax” could replace some duty lost to contraband cigarettes, but also fears that excessive tax would end up with the same situation as now pertains with tobacco, involving the same players.

In March 2016 a mammoth cross-border operation involving some 700 US and Canadian police and customs officials seized C$4m (£2.5m) in cash and 5,200kg of smuggled tobacco worth C$13.5m (£8m).

Six months later, Sylvain Éthier, 41 – among those arrested and still awaiting trial – was shot dead outside his home near Montreal by a member of one of the biker gangs believed to be facilitating the smuggling operations.

But the reason this formidable and growing racket has not been stamped out by either the US or Canada is that there are more than two nations involved.

In theory at least, there are several hundred, scattered all across North America, even if some of them number no more than a few thousand individuals. In Canada they call them First Nations; in the US, Native Americans.

Following centuries of maltreatment and under-representation, both the US and Canada nowadays recognise their “reservations” – usually no bigger than villages – as sovereign territory with their own internal laws and “peacekeeper” police forces. But for the Indigenous community it is all too little, too late. They consider themselves to have been lied to and robbed for more than 250 years, despite supposedly legal treaties signed, over time, with British, French and US governments.

They insist they never sold off their land, but were robbed of vast areas by unscrupulous “Indigenous agents”. And, over the past decades, even as their cause became recognised, they have become more militant, demanding compensation and an end to encroachment.

The first major incident occurred in July 1990 when the mayor of Oka, a small town near Montreal, began felling trees to expand a nine-hole golf course to 18 holes and develop an apartment block nearby.

The local Mohawk tribe were outraged, claiming the development infringed on their land. They blocked access and set up barricades, and police armed with tear gas and stun grenades inflamed the situation. One policeman was killed, while the rest retreated, leaving behind bulldozers and patrol cars.

The situation escalated over several weeks, with “natives” from all over North America rallying to the Mohawks’ support, until at one stage there was an army of 600 armed men defending the territory and blocking a bridge over the Saint Lawrence river into Montreal.

The “Oka Crisis”, as it has gone down in Canadian history, lasted nearly two months and ended with a climbdown by the authorities and advice to police forces to go softly on “Indian” relations.

Spool forward three years, to the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (a target very much in Trump’s sights), and many of North America’s big tobacco companies relocated their manufacturing plants to Mexico’s cheap labour market.

The result? Members of the Indigenous community acquired their equipment cheaply and went into the business themselves, setting up factories on the reservations, theoretically not subject to US or Canadian domestic law. The theory was that the cigarettes could only legally be bought by reservation-dwellers; the result was a contraband explosion.

The most visible evidence of the native tobacco revolution has been the mushrooming of “smoke shacks” along the roads and in the village centres of almost every reserve, selling packs of home-made cigarettes at less than a quarter of the price of big brands, and unbranded loose bags of 200 for substantially less.

Drive into Kahnawake, a small territory lying in the shadow of Montreal just across the Saint Lawrence, and every corner has its own: Red Man Smoke Shop, Mighty Iroquois Tobacco, Totem Pole Smokes, proclaiming “Meilleur qualité, meilleur prix” [best quality, best price], and offering the vast multiplicity of “native”’ brands: Tomahawk, Deerfield, Fleur de Lys, Canadian Goose, Putters and dozens more.

And then there are the “baggies”, which offer 200 smokes for just C$10 (£6) as opposed to the C$80-90 for well-known brands bought in an ordinary Canadian corner shop. Officially the “natives” are not supposed to sell to outsiders, but in practise it is impossible to enforce.

On the road into Kahnawake, a small town of some 8,000 people, I watched a portly white Canadian couple in their 60s load 20 baggies into the boot of their car: 4,000 cigarettes for the price of 400. They may be for private use, they may be being sold on in places much further away.

Anti-smoking campaigners say baggies are regularly to be seen on sale near schools even though the legal age to buy cigarettes is 18. They also insist the Indigenous are harming themselves: on average just 18.2 per cent of Canadians smoke; among the aboriginal population that rises to 56 per cent.

But ask any of the mostly Mohawk inhabitants of Kahnawake and they will tell you that the tobacco industry that has mushroomed on the “reserves” provides much-needed jobs and a major source of local wealth and investment for often relatively poor communities. “Anyway, tobacco is part of our culture,” says Linsey, a girl behind the counter at a smoke shack on the road into town.

The tribes, after all, have been smoking, chewing and cultivating the stuff since the Stone Age. And the anti-smoking lobby accepts the cultural importance of “sacred tobacco” to the natives of North America. But it tries to insist that the traditional use of tobacco in healing and prayer rituals did not involve inhalation.

It is an argument that might be labelled the “Bill Clinton approach”, since most historians acknowledge that in many tribes it was customary to try to inhale deeply and hold the smoke in an attempt to increase the narcotic effect. No plant ever became sacred by people doing nothing with it.

As for the factories, they are mostly discreetly located down back roads on the reserves, often in unmarked barns. Their owners and employees are not exactly garrulous. I asked for an interview with someone at Rainbow Tobacco in Kahnawake and was politely laughed aside: “You gotta be kidding.”

The reason for their lack of enthusiasm for publicity is that the smoke shacks that provide the basis of a living for many locals are barely the tip of the iceberg. Although the cigarettes may not legally be sold off-reserve, the producers insist on their right to transport them between First Nation communities, particularly out west.

Rainbow has fought legal battles against the governments of the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta for confiscating cigarettes they insist were either sent “as gifts” or bore the proper stamps to show they had government duty paid. Not that all the tobacco is Canadian grown.

The tobacco belt of south-western Ontario was a motor of prosperity in the mid-20th century, having helped Canada out of the depression in the late 1920s, but in recent decades the crop has been discouraged and the government has bought out some farmers. The remainder are grateful for the native industry, which takes all it can get and then some.

Between 2014 and the summer of 2016, the Canadian government estimates that 2,081 tonnes of tobacco worth some C$530m (£300m) was imported illegally, much but not all of it from the US, but all headed for the cigarette manufacturing plants on the First Nations reserves.

Grand River Enterprises (GRE), by far the largest of the native cigarette companies, has line after line of grey warehouses and manufacturing sheds adorned with a picture of an Indigenous chief in traditional feathered war bonnet, on either side of the northern end of Chiefwood Road in the Six Nations reserve in south Ontario.

Fully licensed by the Canadian government as a tobacco producer, GRE insists that it abides by all regulations, though some former law enforcement officers say it is hard to police exactly how strictly it complies with the rules in a factory technically located outside Canadian-controlled territory, even though it pays large sums in tax to Ottowa.

Its Mohawk founders have faced allegations ranging from large-scale smuggling in the 1990s to links last year with large-scale cannabis cultivation on Native American lands in northern California, although no formal charges have been brought.

One thing is certain: GRE has grown astronomically over 20 years, from a tiny two-man business to a company with more than 1,000 native employees and a business empire worth tens of millions, including a factory in eastern Germany, opened in 2004, which now produces billions of cigarettes a year for discount supermarkets in Europe.

GRE funds local services in its home territory, the Six Nations’ small town of Ohsweken, its very name proclaiming its native origins in an area where nearby towns are London, Cambridge, Woodstock and Kitchener. First Nation lobby groups insist on their right to move their products freely between their widely scattered territories.

The question is, how many go astray en route. According to Canada’s Frontline Safety and Security magazine, the profit to be made from a single tractor-trailerload of native-produced cigarettes resold at half the commercial shop price could bring in an illicit profit of nearly C$2.5m and a loss to Ottawa’s revenue of nearly double that.

The incentive is therefore enormous. But the roadside smoke shack sellers shrug and say that the government is really only interested in lost tax revenue and cares no more about the native communities than it ever did. And the irony, now, is that the colonial authorities’ historic dismissal of the rights of natives to “their own land” is being used against them in the cross-border smuggling business.

The border situation near the town of Cornwall in southern Ontario is one of the most complicated in the world, involving the US, two Canadian provinces – Quebec and Ontario, with different police forces and different jurisdictions – plus a large area of Akwesasne Mohawk land, which extends across all three of them.

Akwesasne Mohawks legally recognise but do not in practise accept the frontier running through their lands. There are no border controls on the southern mainland: they can walk or drive freely from their territory in Canada to their territory in the US.

But they can only get back to the Canadian mainland by crossing the invisible border to the non-Akwesasne US, then over a bridge and through customs control into Canada.

There is, of course, an easy alternative: a boat. The river here is a sportsman’s paradise. Most people here live on the river, have jetties and small boats. Most crossings are within Canadian territory. They are also within Akwesasne territory – as are those to the US. It is not just a paradise for sportsmen, but smugglers too.

There is no imminent end to the impasse. Not least because, whatever the native producers say, tax collection is not the only motive. Canada is rapidly acquiring a reputation as one of the world’s most interfering nanny states. On the exterior walls of the Ramada Inn in Cornwall signs warn “No Smoking within 30ft of the hotel”. Back in 2001 Canada became the first country to insist on gory health warnings covering 50 per cent of the front and rear of cigarette packs.

The theoretical fine for possessing anything from one pack of “native” cigarettes is a minimum of C$100 (£60) plus three times the tax, though in areas around the reserves small-scale smuggling is so common it is rarely enforced.

Now the anti-smoking lobby is pressing for totally plain packaging, which would completely obliterate the branding. The irony is that by so doing they would be playing directly into the hands of the native cigarette manufacturers, who could still sell their brightly coloured packets on the reserves.

Darryl, the Scottish-born landlord of the Glengarrian pub in Cornwall, told me he would regularly spend C$16 on a packet of Matinée cigarettes for his wife, but for himself he often made do with native cigarettes. And he had a favourite brand: Putters, recognised by most smokers as a rip-off of popular big brand Players: “They’re not quite as good as the real thing, but they’re not bad, and they’re cheap.”

Cheaper still are the bêtes noires of the anti-smoking lobby: the “baggies” selling out there in the reserves – and later in the schoolyards – at the price of a Pokemon Go starter pack for 200 random cigarettes in a clear plastic bag: the ultimate plain packaging.

This would be an odd way to make the illegal trade more transparent. But there is no sign of a peace pipe being smoked any time soon.

Tobacco exposure ups behavioural issues and dropout rates in children

Exposure to tobacco smoke is immensely toxic to the developing brain.

Children exposed to tobacco smoke in early childhood adopt anti-social behaviour, engage in proactive and reactive aggression, and face conduct problems at school, even drop out at age 12, a research has showed. Exposure to tobacco smoke is toxic to the developing brain at a time when it is most vulnerable to environment input, the researchers said. ‘Young children have little control over their exposure to household tobacco smoke, which is considered toxic to the brain at a time when its development is exponential,’ said lead author and Professor Linda Pagani from the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. Parents who smoke near their children often inadvertently expose them to second- and third-hand smoke. Abnormal brain development can result from chronic or transient exposure to toxic chemicals and gases in second-hand tobacco smoke. These compounds eventually solidify and create third-hand smoke. In the study, the researchers found compelling evidence that suggests other dangers to developing brain systems that govern behavioural decisions, social and emotional life as well as cognitive functioning.

Anti-social behaviour is characterised by proactive intent to harm others, lack prosocial feelings, and violate social norms. Such behaviours include aggression, criminal offences, theft, refusal to comply with authority, destruction of property and is also associated with academic problems in later childhood. ‘These long-term associations should encourage policy-makers and public health professionals to raise awareness among parents about the developmental risks of second-hand smoke exposure,’ Pagani said. For the study, published in the journal Indoor Air, the team examined 1,035 boys and girls born in 1997 and 1998. Their parents reported whether anyone smoked at home when their children were aged 1.5 to 7.5 years. At age 12, their children self-reported their anti-social behaviour and academic characteristics. (Read: Children exposed to cigarette smoke may develop early heart disease)

Quebec’s new tobacco laws come into full effect Saturday

Smoking outside, within a 9 metre-radius of a window or door that opens, is now prohibited in Quebec, under the Tobacco Control Act.Formerly known as the Tobacco Act, several amendments were made to the law with the first changes coming into effect one year ago today.According to a government website, the Tobacco Control Act was enacted to protect the public from the dangers of second-hand smoke, to encourage smokers to quit smoking and to prevent youth from taking up smoking to begin with.

Changes to the act targeted several areas, including but not limited to, the use of tobacco in certain places, the promotion and advertising of tobacco products, a framework for electronic cigarettes and increased fines for offences.The last amendments to the law came into effect Saturday.The nine-metre radius rule is also applicable to air intakes connected to an enclosed place where smoking is not allowed. The exception is when the radius extends beyond property limits, meaning that if a door or window leads to a municipal sidewalk the smoke ban doesn’t apply.As of Saturday, it is also illegal for adults to buy tobacco products for minors.Anyone caught contravening the act can be fined anywhere from $250 to $3,000 depending on the offence and whether or not it’s a repeat offence. Prior penalties ranged from $50 to $3,000.For a full list of regulations, fines and offences, you can consult the Quebec government’s online health portal.

Secret report shows Big Tobacco targeted city politicians in Sudbury and Sault

Algoma municipalities are being asked to stub out all motions proposed by tobacco companies or front groups that slip demands for a freeze on excise taxes into campaigns against contraband tobacco.

Leaked map shows 10 Ontario 'strategic municipalities' whose local politicians were targeted in 2012 by Imperial Tobacco Canada. Reasons for selecting these targets included their 'proximity to illicit tobacco' and 'likelihood of buy-in.'

Leaked map shows 10 Ontario ‘strategic municipalities’ whose local politicians were targeted in 2012 by Imperial Tobacco Canada. Reasons for selecting these targets included their ‘proximity to illicit tobacco’ and ‘likelihood of buy-in.’

Greater Sudbury has the dubious distinction of being named in a secret Big Tobacco document aimed, ostensibly, at fighting contraband smokes, but at the same time quietly lobbying to freeze the excise tax on legitimate tobacco products.

Algoma Board of Health, the governing body of Algoma Public Health, is warning area politicians about new evidence linking Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. to lobbying campaigns against contraband tobacco.

The health board voted this week to ask Algoma municipalities to reject all motions received from tobacco companies or front groups that spike campaigns against illicit smokes with demands for a tobacco excise tax freeze or limits on regulation of tobacco products.

Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of British American Tobacco Plc., one of the world’s five biggest tobacco companies with 55,000 employees in 44 factories in 41 countries.

In a recently leaked internal report prepared for its London-based parent, Imperial Tobacco Canada reveals that it’s been quietly involved for years in lobbying campaigns by convenience-store and anti-contraband groups.

The secret report describes Project M&M, a 2012 campaign intended to “mobilize local governments to pressure for big government action” against illicit tobacco, with demands for an excise tax freeze piggybacked on the main message.

Listed as partners in Project M&M are the Canadian Convenience Store Association, the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Fédération des Chambres de Commerce du Québec and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The leaked 32-page document includes a map identifying 10 “strategic municipalities” to be targeted in Ontario: Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Windsor, Brantford, London, Mississauga, Niagara Falls, Whitby, Cornwall and Toronto.

These municipalities were selected, the report says, because of their:

  • proximity to illicit tobacco
  • seizure activity
  • internal sales data
  • political weight
  • likelihood of buy-in

The document also identifies 10 targeted municipalities in Quebec: Montreal, Gatineau, Chateauguay, Laval, St. Georges, Sherbrooke, Quebec City, Drummondville, Trois Rivieres and Saguenay.

An article published one month ago by the National Post pointed to other close ties between convenience-store organizations and the tobacco industry.

“In fact, there is other evidence of their close links to the industry, including at least three former tobacco-company executives who are now leaders in the Ontario, Quebec and national convenience-store associations,” the Post’s Tom Blackwell reported.

The leaked Imperial Tobacco report suggests that the “2012 lobbying campaign was no grassroots movement, and that the retail and contraband organizations have for years been used as surrogates by the cigarette giant to promote its own interests,” Blackwell wrote.

Sales of illicit cigarettes are considered a major problem in Ontario, where a bag of 200 illegal “rollies” sells for as little as $10 to $15, compared to more than $80 for legally taxed smokes bought at a corner store.

A 2013 study of collected cigarette butts conducted by NIRIC Group for the Ontario Convenience Store Association found that 17.7 per cent of butts picked up in Sault Ste. Marie were contraband, compared to 30.1 per cent in Kitchener, 28.5 per cent in Barrie, 24.5 per cent in Sudbury, 20.9 percent in Thunder Bay, 18.7 per cent in Toronto, 18.1 per cent in Guelph and 11 per cent in North Bay.

Major tobacco firms are appealing a landmark $15B ruling they lost

Three major tobacco firms are appealing a landmark $15 billion Superior Court ruling they lost in June 2015.

Lawyers for Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald and Rothmans-Benson & Hedges began arguments today during hearings that are expected to last until the end of the week.

The companies were targeted by two separate lawsuits heard at the same time that were filed in 1998 and only went to trial in 2012.

They were sued by people who were addicted to cigarettes and couldn’t quit as well as by those who had suffered from cancer or emphysema.

Some 76 witnesses testified and nearly 43,000 documents were deposited as evidence, including internal tobacco company documents that showed smokers didn’t know or understand the risks associated with cigarettes.

Cigarette companies argued their customers knew the risks of smoking and that their products were sold legally and were strictly regulated by the federal government.

The same cigarette companies are also being sued by the Quebec government in a $60-billion lawsuit aiming to recover health care costs related to smokers.

Think tanks with ties to tobacco arguing against plain packaging

A tobacco company speaking out against a public-health measure doesn’t have the same credibility as a respected think tank or advocacy group. So those companies often work with or donate funds to organizations that publicly criticize tobacco taxes and other new regulatory measures.

Those financial relationships create the possibility for bias. Yet most of the organizations on the receiving end of tobacco donations do not clearly disclose that information when speaking about related issues.

The latest example is the current debate over plain packaging.

The federal government wants to pass new regulations that would strip brand colours and logos from tobacco products and instead require them to carry a standard plain colour and font in addition to the graphic health warnings that are currently used. The government hopes the move can stop some of the nearly 90,000 Canadians who pick up the deadly habit each year. Across the country, nearly 40,000 people die annually from tobacco-related illnesses

Not surprisingly, the three biggest tobacco companies in Canada, Imperial Tobacco Canada; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald, are all opposed to the measure.

But they aren’t the only ones against the proposal. Some think tanks and advocacy groups with tobacco funding are also speaking out against plain packaging. And yet, these groups typically don’t mention their financial ties when speaking about policy.

For example, the Montreal Economic Institute published a report in September saying plain packaging “attacks the value of brands.” It included a disclaimer saying the report was “in no way” financed by tobacco. In September 2015, institute president Michel Kelly-Gagnon authored a Huffington Post article saying plain packaging drove consumption higher in Australia, where it was adopted in 2012. The article didn’t mention an industry connection.

But in an e-mail, Kelly-Gagnon said the institute has “proudly received” tobacco funding since 1998 in amounts between 2 and 4 per cent of its budget. He said in an interview that the organization recently decided to stop accepting donations from the industry because health groups use that information to criticize its work.

Then there’s the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco, which issued a press release in September warning about the prevalence of illegal cigarettes and how the problem will worsen with plain packaging. A letter to the editor from the coalition and published in The Globe and Mail in September also stated that plain packaging will increase the contraband market. In its official comments to the federal government on plain packaging, the coalition said there is “no doubt” the new measure “will increase the availability of the illegal product.” The document doesn’t mention financial ties to tobacco.

Online, the coalition lists its members, which include the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Toronto Crime Stoppers and the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council.

But according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, the coalition works closely with the country’s three major tobacco companies to shape its public statements and reports. The coalition declined an interview request and did not respond directly to questions about its ties to tobacco.

Another example dates back to May, when the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a Halifax think tank, hosted a talk by Sinclair Davidson, an Australian professor and vocal plain-packaging critic. According to articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Institute of Public Affairs, where Davidson is a fellow, has received tobacco funding and some experts have criticized Davidson’s work as flawed.

In an e-mail, Davidson defended his work and said he was invited to speak in Canada by the Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA). But according to the AIMS Facebook page, Davidson’s Halifax visit was organized by the institute in partnership with Crestview Strategy, a public-affairs firm. According to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada, Crestview currently lobbies on behalf of Rothmans, Benson & Hedges. (Crestview and Rothmans did not respond to questions about the visit.)

The CCSA said it does receive funding from the tobacco industry but declined to state an amount or respond to questions about Davidson’s visit.

Imperial Tobacco Canada; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald declined requests to name the groups they fund, but said they work with groups that share their views.

Julia Smith, a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University who studies tobacco control, said she is concerned organizations with financial ties to tobacco will help derail plain packaging and other health measures, in part because many believe their views are independent and unbiased. “We’ve seen the tobacco industry use these tactics in the past,” she said, noting that “in some cases, they have been successful.”

Beyond engaging vocal sources, the tobacco industry has also commissioned several reports that say plain packaging is ineffective. But independent research tells a different story.

An Australian government survey found the number of daily smokers fell from 2.7 million in 2010 to 2.5 million in 2013. The average age young people reported smoking their first full cigarette rose from 15.4 years in 2010 to 15.9 years in 2013. And a 2013 study published in the journal Tobacco Control found only a small number of retail stores sold illicit cigarettes. Before plain packaging, researchers found about 2 per cent of cigarette packages to be illicit, compared to 0.6 per cent in the months after implementation.

Think tanks and advocacy groups regularly seek to influence public policy. But policy-makers and the public deserve to know when those organizations may be representing the interests of others.