Province unveiling tobacco reduction strategy

CALGARY – Anti-smoking advocates hope the Alberta Tories deliver on efforts to curb youth smoking as the provincial government releases its new tobacco reduction strategy Monday.

The plan, released five months later than planned and a decade after the original anti-smoking strategy, may include a ban on shisha smoking in hookah lounges, restrictions on flavoured tobacco, greater enforcement around sales, and anti-tobacco education and marketing initiatives.

Health Minister Fred Horne previously confirmed that Liberal Leader Raj Sherman’s bill banning smoking in vehicles where minors are present will be proclaimed.

But critics are disappointed that tobacco tax hikes likely won’t be included in the plan, saying the affordability of tobacco products are making it easy for young people to pick up the habit.

According to figures from the Smoking and Health Action Foundation in April, tobacco taxes in Alberta total $57.85 for a 200-cigarette carton, $10 less than Saskatchewan and $6 less than British Columbia – in part because Alberta doesn’t have provincial or territorial sales tax. Only Ontario and Quebec have lower total tobacco taxes.

The last hike in Alberta was $3 per carton in 2009.

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Alberta is also the fifth cheapest place in Canada to buy cigarettes, with a carton priced at $90.55. Coupled with the high income levels in the province, it makes tobacco products very affordable, argued Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.

“Without tobacco tax increases, we will continue to fight youth smoking with one hand tied behind our back,” he said.

However, he and other advocates are keeping their fingers crossed that the health minister will keep his word on dedicating part of the plan to combating youth smoking.

In June, in response to an Alberta Health annual report showing an increase in smoking among young people, Horne said the tobacco reduction strategy “is going to focus to a considerable extent on youth.”

The report shows that in 2009, 25 per cent of people between 20 and 24 years old reported smoking. By 2010, that number had grown to 30 per cent. The number of teens aged 12 to 19 who reported smoking also went up, from 12 per cent in 2009 to 13 per cent in 2010.

Hagen said he hopes the government will impose restrictions on flavoured tobacco products to help bring those numbers down.

He said it’s “appalling” how companies take something so deadly and addictive, make them fruit or mint flavoured, wrap them in “colourful little tubes like children’s markers and lip gloss” and sell them in singles to make them more affordable, to appeal to kids.

The Liberal leader said any legislation that will help lower teenage smoking rates has the full support of his caucus.

“Because of all these smokeless tobacco products and advertising aimed at youth, our youth smoking rates have come down, but they have started going back up again,” Sherman said. “If the legislation will help lower teenage smoking, great idea.”

Angeline Webb, senior public policy adviser with the Canadian Cancer Society, said she hopes the province goes as far as to ban all flavoured tobacco products.

Webb said she’d also like to see changes in the marketing and sales of slim cigarettes, which are sold in “attractive packaging” to appeal specifically to young women and girls.

Janis Seville, director of health initiatives with the Lung Association’s Alberta and Northwest Territories division, said she is pleased the province is focusing on youth but hopes their strategy is “comprehensive,” encourages youth to make healthy choices, and incorporates a social media element.

Separately, the province has launched a $10-billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry to recover smoking-related health costs.

Bart Johnson, press secretary for the minister of health, declined to confirm any of the anti-smoking strategy’s details. But he said the plan will outline target goals.

City council may also vote Monday to place new limits on where Calgarians can light up. Ald. Andre Chabot has proposed bans on smoking in outdoor spaces where children gather, including playgrounds, skate parks and sports fields.