U of S alumni and PSP campaigners Harsha Kasi Vishwanathan (left) and Lesley James (right) with the Honourable Nicola Roxon, former Australian Minister for Health. PSP was implemented in Australia in 2012.

School of Public Health backs plain and standardized packaging

The University of Saskatchewan School of Public Health (SPH) has endorsed a national campaign to introduce plain and standardized packaging (PSP) for tobacco products in Canada.

The campaign will call on the federal government to make good on its pre-electoral promise to adopt PSP as part of new health policies. 

Playing a leading role in the campaign, SPH alumnae Lesley James and Harsha Vishwanathan, who are both graduates of the Master of Public Health program working in policy development with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, explained why the time is right for Canada to introduce PSP.

“Every day counts. Delaying only serves the tobacco companies, who entice new customers to get hooked on their products,” said James, who chairs the Canadian Coalition for Action on Tobacco (CCAT), a group of national health organizations tasked with developing the policies that will move PSP from promise to practice.

PSP will standardize the look of cigarette and tobacco packaging, removing brand-specific design such as logos, fonts, colours and images, but graphic health warnings will remain.

With other forms of advertising severely restricted, tobacco companies see packaging as valuable marketing space. “It’s really a last frontier for them,” explained Vishwanathan.

Bright colours, shiny materials and enticing language continue to draw new customers by glamorizing smoking and creating a brand loyalty which makes it difficult for people to quit.

Youth and women are particularly vulnerable to this type of marketing, making positive links between attractive cigarette packaging and lifestyle values such as sophistication and elegance.

Although smoking has declined in Canada, it continues to be the country’s leading preventable cause of disease and death.

“Around 18% of Canadians still smoke,” James said. “PSP will reduce the appeal of tobacco products, discourage new users and encourage more quit attempts, which will in turn reduce the burden of tobacco-related disease and death in Canada.”

But will PSP prove a successful deterrent to smokers? Dr. Yelena Bird, SPH assistant professor and researcher in tobacco control and prevention, thinks so. “Research has shown that the tobacco industry has increasingly relied on marketing the cigarette package to create brand recall and loyalty among current smokers, and a desire to try smoking among young customers,” she explained.

Echoing Dr. Bird’s view is Jennifer May, vice-president of health promotion for the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, who attended a national consultation on PSP in Ottawa last summer. “It is a critical step in the fight against smoking. The consultation served to remind the government that PSP has been successful in other countries and that it can work for us,” May said.  

Australia introduced PSP in 2012, and has since reported a 25 per cent decrease in smoking, reduced brand loyalty, and more quit attempts.

But PSP still faces major backlash from tobacco companies who claim it will encourage illegal sales and lower tax revenues. These are just scare tactics, James clarified. “The tobacco industry is desperate to change the discourse on PSP by putting false evidence out into the public,” she said. “Part of CCAT’s job is to identify and point out the biased nature of this opposition.”

For now, CCAT continues to work with Health Canada and tobacco-control organizations to agree on what PSP will look like in Canada, and to learn from the experiences of countries who have introduced it.

Continuing to grow support for PSP on a provincial and national level will make a great deal of difference, James explained.

“Our campaign has a much higher chance of success if we demonstrate a unified voice.”  

More information on plain packaging can be found at www.plainpacks.ca

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