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Industry reacts to Health Canada plain packaging rules for tobacco

Canadian cigarette packs will have to be plain drab brown with standardized layouts and lettering under new rules that start this fall, Health Canada says.

The government says plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking, keeping them from getting lost amid colourful designs and branding.

Health Canada says plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking.

Manufacturers will have to begin complying with labelling rules for packages and dimensions for cigarettes by Nov. 9, 2019, while retailers will have to sell only products meeting the new rules by Feb. 7, 2020.

Officials said plain packages will increase the impact of graphic health warnings about the dangers of smoking, keeping them from getting lost amid colourful designs and branding.

The government wants to stop cigarette companies from using their packs as tiny ads for their products, insisting even on a single shape and design for the packs themselves – meaning soft packs are out, as are creative designs with bevelled edges and any other distinctive features.

Health Canada picked the same dark brown for the packages as Australia did for its tobacco products a few years ago, one identified by market researchers as the ugliest colour in the world. Several European countries have used the colour as well.

“Packages with darker colours were perceived to be more ‘harmful to health’ and their products ‘harder to quit,’ in contrast to packages with lighter colours,” the department said in a summary of the plans.

Health Canada said there could be a shortage of the new packs in the early going as a very limited number of suppliers retool to make just one design instead of many different ones.

The regulations released May 1 also standardize the size and appearance of cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products inside the packages.

Specific rules have been awaited since Parliament passed a law requiring them last fall, joining 13 other countries that have adopted similar measures.

The new rules are part of a larger strategy aimed at driving the rate of tobacco use among Canadians down to five per cent by 2035. Federal statistics show that in 2017, 18 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 said they used tobacco in the previous month, an increase of 15% from 2015.

The Canadian Cancer Society praised the government’s regulations, calling them “the best and most comprehensive in the world.”

On the flip side, the industry association representing convenience stores said plain packaging increases the appeal of contraband tobacco products and makes them harder to distinguish from legally marketed ones.

“Instead of addressing the 20% of tobacco that is sold illegally in Canada, government is adding one more burden to law-abiding retailers who don’t sell to minors, comply with display bans, and partner with government to collect and remit most of the $9 billion in tobacco tax revenue every year,” Anne Kothawala, president of the Convenience Industry Council of Canada, said in a statement.

Representatives from the Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association agree, saying the new rules will hurt small businesses.

“The only way the government can guarantee this will occur is if the law is applied equally to all products being sold and purchased in Canada, including the up to 40 percent of illegal tobacco consumed in Ontario today. To date, this government has shown no willingness to crack down on illegal manufacturers,” stated OKBA spokesperson Kenny Shim. “The booming black market of illegal, unregulated, and untaxed products not only leads to a loss in market share for our members – it also leads to a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in government revenue, contributes to the funding of organized crime, and further compromises Canadian public health by introducing unregulated products to the market.”

The convenience industry has long advocated that plain packaging is not an effective tool to reduce smoking. In its recent eNewsletter, CICC stated: “We were successful in one key area: standardized packaging (slide and shell) will not happen for another 24 months for manufacturers, with retailers being given an additional three-month transition period to comply. On plain packaging, a few technical issues arose out of last week’s regulations that the CICC is working to clarify. We will be providing comprehensive information to both wholesalers and retailers in the coming weeks to help prepare them for this significant policy change.”

With files from Michelle Warren