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Letter: Government must stop brand expropriation

While the federal government moves ahead with the legalization of marijuana, it continues to seek stricter tobacco industry regulation by banning menthol cigarettes and introducing plain packaging. These tobacco regulations are an easy political win meant to generate headlines and appease a vocal, well-funded tobacco control lobby, but do nothing to further reduce smoking rates.–government-must-stop-brand-expropriation.html

Meanwhile, millions of Canadians purchase marijuana. In fact, most surveys show marijuana use higher than smoking. According to Health Canada’s own data, the youth usage rate for marijuana is almost six times that of tobacco, which is remarkable since marijuana is presently illegal. This is interesting since as an illegal product, marijuana is already effectively sold in a plain pack.

The federal government’s stated objective with marijuana legalization is to get people to switch over from the illegal and unregulated market to the regulated market. The government’s task force on marijuana legalization recommended plain packaging for that product.

Licensed producers of marijuana are now arguing that branding and marketing are necessary to attract consumers from the black market to the legal industry and cite the liquor sector as an example to follow. Branding justifies why it makes sense for consumers to go through the legal system instead of going to somebody they know in the neighbourhood.

The tobacco industry also needs brands to differentiate its products from illegal traffickers. It makes no sense to allow marijuana producers to display their brands to bring consumers through legal channels while taking away branding from the tobacco industry. The only result is sending consumers to the illegal market.

The unlawful production, distribution and sale of cigarettes in Canada has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, with illicit products making up more than 20 per cent of tobacco products. This is creating challenges for public health officials, law enforcement, tax authorities, policy makers and the public. Governments suffer significant revenue shortfalls in tobacco taxes. Efforts on the part of government and other organizations to protect the health of Canadians of all ages are undermined.

Small business owners are losing sales.

Plain and standardized packaging will lead to an increase in Canada’s already rampant illicit tobacco and thereby actually undermine public health objectives.

Unsurprisingly, evidence from Australia shows plain packaging has not achieved any of its stated objectives. Canada will be no different.

Nobody disagrees with the virtues of regulating tobacco and yes, even the tobacco industry believes young people should not smoke. But there are proven means to ensure that young people do not smoke, such as education programs and interventions targeted at at-risk populations. Yet, the government continues to concede to a small but vocal group of anti-tobacco lobbyists who are more anti-industry than pro-health.

With products already hidden from view in stores and 75 per cent of the pack covered with health warnings, nobody starts smoking because of the pack. Plain packaging will only make it easier for counterfeit tobacco manufacturers to copy legitimate products.

No other industry would accept this requirement, as the lobbying from marijuana producers now makes clear. However, all industries should be fearful of this abuse of government power. In the U.K., which passed tobacco plain packaging legislation in 2015, there is a growing chorus of health groups and academics calling for alcohol to suffer the same fate. While it may be tobacco and marijuana facing plain packaging in Canada today, it will be another industry shortly thereafter.

Companies making a legal product have a right to their brands and those need to be protected to ensure consumers have the confidence in the source and quality of the product.

Eric Gagnon, head of external affairs
Imperial Tobacco Canada

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