Canada battles smoking

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Ottawa-Stark, even gruesome warning labels will be required on cigarette packages in Canada later this month as the country implements what it's calling the world's toughest tobacco-labeling rules.

Hard-hitting color photographs of a smoking-ravaged mouth, cancerous lung and damaged heart highlight 16 new warnings that go into effect Dec. 23, part of government agency Health Canada's sweeping anti-smoking measure announced at the beginning of the year.

All Canadian tobacco products will feature the new warnings.

"Our goal is to show the dangers [of smoking] and how you can avoid those dangers," said a Health Canada spokesman. "It's groundbreaking. These messages will get noticed."

Smokers will be hard-pressed to miss the warnings: Color photos, headlines and brief messages will now take up 50% of tobacco packages, up from the 33% to 38% required for the previous text-only messages in black and white. The inside of the packs will also change: Tobacco marketers must now include health information or stop-smoking tips.

EFFECTIVE INITIATIVE

Canadian health groups hail the warnings as possibly the most effective stop-smoking initiative ever in the country, where an estimated two billion packs of cigarettes worth roughly $6.5 billion are sold each year. Focus-group research by the Canadian Cancer Society, for instance, indicates that graphic photo-based warnings would be as much as seven to 11 times more effective than text-only ones in discouraging smoking.

Among the most graphic: "Cigarettes cause strokes," says one warning's headline, next to a medical textbook-style photograph of a human brain cut in half to show where the damage occurred. "Tobacco smoke can cause arteries in your brain to clog," reads the accompanying message. "This can block the blood vessels and cause a stroke. A stroke can cause disability and even death."

Less jarring warnings include a photo of a pregnant woman smoking, another of two children and a third showing an infant lying in a hospital ward. Their headlines are "Smoking hurts babies," "Don't poison us" and "Tobacco smoke hurts babies," respectively.

Canada's tobacco marketers, however, question the effectiveness of the new warnings and object to losing more pack space to messages they say infringe on their trademarks by squeezing out brand identities. A legal challenge is pending in Quebec Superior Court over the labeling rules and what the marketers call "excessive expropriation of packages and trademarks." Hearings are likely in March or April, months after the packs have been on the market.

Canada's tobacco marketers spent an estimated $17.5 million to refit printing operations to produce the new labels on their packs.

"We fear these very shocking images will have an opposite effect, particularly with teen-agers," said Marie-Jose Lapointe, VP-communications for the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council, which represents marketers Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald, and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges. "We're quite concerned that this makes it even more shocking to smoke, nurturing that rebellious side of youth," Ms. Lapointe said of the grim photographic warnings.

She points to "an absence of behavioral research" on the impact of the photographic warnings on smoking, and cites studies that say 97% of smokers know the health risks of smoking, suggesting new warnings aren't needed.

That's not so, responded Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society. "Marketers everywhere know there's a big difference between information provision and information impact," said Mr. Cunningham, who has spread the word about the new warnings among health organizations around the world. "A picture can be extremely effective in communicating a message."

New warning labels aren't the only rules facing Canada's tobacco marketers, though.

Government regulations restrict traditional tobacco advertising, so marketers traditionally sponsor sports and cultural events to promote their brands. New Canadian rules on sponsorship and advertising sponsorships went into effect in October 2000 and will gradually tighten until sponsorship is completely banned in three years.

The impact is already being felt. In August, JTI-Macdonald pulled its title-backing of Canada's most-watched golf tournament-the Export "A" Skins Games, named for the Export "A" cigarette brand-citing the toughening regulations.

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