How to win a tobacco battle

Years of effort pay off with changes that will reduce smoking
Closeup of a woman breaking a cigarette

Canada will have some of the toughest tobacco plain packaging laws in the world thanks to work supported by Heart & Stroke donors.

Legislation passed in May 2018 by the federal government will strip colours, logos and distinct typefaces from tobacco and cigarette packages, introduce standardized package sizes and formats as well as health warnings on individual cigarettes, and regulate e-cigarettes. 

How we got here

Smoking (or tobacco use) is the leading risk for disability and premature death in Canada, causing 45,000 deaths annually. Smokers are three times more likely to have a stroke or die of heart disease, says Lesley James, senior manager of health policy at Heart & Stroke. 

The new legislation builds on decades of work led by Heart & Stroke to curb the burden of tobacco.

Successes along the way include adding health warnings to cigarette packages, tax increases, banning smoking in public places like restaurants and bars, and restricting tobacco companies from sponsoring public events. 

Heart & Stroke’s fight for plain packaging started in 2014 and ramped up in 2016/17 with Heart & Stroke’s advocacy campaign, which saw Members of Parliament receive roughly 2,500 letters from people in Canada supporting legislation. Behind the scenes Heart & Stroke met with government officials to champion tougher laws than ones already adopted in Australia, the UK and Ireland.

James notes the tobacco industry’s strong reaction wasn’t surprising. “Marketing sells cigarettes. But when the industry began fighting back hard, we also knew we had a strong policy. We call this the scream test.” 

She acknowledges there were times when she and her team felt overwhelmed by the powerful and well- resourced tobacco lobby. They stayed motivated by working closely with other organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society and Lung Association. 

“We're small but mighty. We stuck with it and because of our perseverance the policy passed.”  

New rules will reduce youth appeal

Requiring tobacco companies to remove the colours, fancy fonts and logos that make their products more appealing — particularly to youth —  is a necessary step to reducing the harm caused by smoking, says James.   

Standardizing package sizes will ensure that health warnings are more effective and easy to read. 

The new legislation will also legalize e-cigarettes with nicotine. The move will force compliance with safety standards and eventually regulate the amount of nicotine contained in these products. E-cigarettes are increasingly being marketed as a healthier cigarette. They are less harmful than combustible tobacco — but they're not without harm. 

“We're going to continue to pressure government to put more stringent marketing restrictions on e-cigarettes, to ensure youth and non-smokers do not take up vaping,” James says 

The latest legislation is a step in the right direction but with national smoking rates hovering at 16%, there’s still much work to be done. 

Looking ahead, Heart & Stroke will advocate for bolder measures that reduce tobacco use, including holding the tobacco industry accountable for the social and economic burden, advancing smoke free outdoor spaces and increasing taxes on cigarettes to fund programs to help people quit. 

If you're trying to quit smoking, says James, the best approach is to speak with a health care professional. Nicotine replacement therapy like gum and patches, along with counselling and medication remain the most effective interventions.