Opinion: New tobacco laws make Alberta a leader, but more can be done

Friday, December 6, 2013

Edmonton Journal, December 6, 2013

By Leia Minaker and Steve Manske, Edmonton Journal

Despite a wealth of knowledge and current policies in place to protect Alberta youth from the dangers of smoking, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death in Canada.

About 3,000 Albertans die each year as a result of tobacco industry products.

That’s why Albertans should be proud of their Members of Legislative Assembly for passing Bills 206 and 33 last week.

The bills prohibit the sale of flavoured tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, ban tobacco sales to minors and ban smoking in vehicles carrying kids under age 18. They contribute to the protection, health and well-being of Alberta youth.

At the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo, we applaud the Alberta government for taking seriously youth tobacco prevention and protection, despite the 20 or so lobbyists registered to encourage opposition to the bills.

Data released by Propel earlier this year revealed that of Alberta students in Grades 9-12 who reported using tobacco in the last 30 days, more than half used flavoured tobacco products. This translates to 25,700 young Albertans likely to become addicted.

Shockingly, almost every second one of these who do get addicted will die an early death linked to tobacco use.

The bills are important because flavoured tobacco products target youth who find it challenging to think about the next week or next month, much less years down the road.

Our report also revealed more than one-third of young Alberta smokers — 12,800 students — reported smoking menthols. The tobacco industry adds menthol to cigarettes to reduce the harsh taste of cigarette smoke and soothe the throat. Menthol cigarettes serve as “starter” products for many kids who are experimenting with smoking.

Some have argued that because less than five per cent of Canadian adult smokers use menthol products, it should be excluded from legislation. But the adult figures stand in stark contrast to the 37 per cent of youth smokers who report using these products.

Clearly, it’s critical that Bill 206 prohibits menthol flavouring as well as other flavours.

Another important element of the flavour ban is that it includes all forms of tobacco. Youth are more likely to use smokeless tobacco than any other age group, and 72 per cent of kids in Alberta who used smokeless tobacco reported using flavoured products.

Currently, our federal legislation only bans flavours, not including menthol, in cigarettes, little cigars and blunt wraps. Alberta’s MLAs have closed the loophole that exempted smokeless tobacco.

The Alberta government is leading the way in Canada by providing the strictest flavour ban in the country. The passage of these bills represents first-class protection of Alberta’s youth and shows the rest of Canada what is possible.

But while passing these bills represents huge strides in promoting health and well-being, work still needs to be done.

Cigarettes in Alberta are more affordable than in any other province. We know that increasing the price of tobacco is the most effective way to prevent tobacco use among youth.

So we will watch with interest to see whether this strong support on Bills 206 and 33 translates into even more effective youth tobacco prevention measures in the future.

Leia Minaker is a post-doctoral fellow and Steve Manske a senior scientist from the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

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