A requirement that all cigarettes be sold in the same generic packaging would move Canada to the forefront of countries worldwide seeking to reduce cigarette smoking.
The idea of plain packaging first surfaced in the mid-1980s in Australia, which drew up regulations but has not mandated plain packaging.
By yearend, a seven-member panel appointed by Health Canada is scheduled to report on whether packaging induces purchase of tobacco products. If it so finds, as expected, and the ministry accepts those findings, a proposal, already being prepared by the ministry, will be presented to Parliament early next year. A bill could take effect a year later.
The panel of academics and industry executives includes at least one representative from the advertising community, Jacques Lefebvre, president of McLaren: Lintas Publicite, Quebec, who did not return phone calls.
The proposal being drawn up would allow the brand name of the cigarette on the package, but the rest would be taken up by warning statements and lists of the "toxic constituents."
Those warnings and other government-mandated statements, passed into law last summer and now appearing on package labels, now comprise up to 40% of the cigarette packs. The warnings, placed both in black on white or in reverse, state in English and French that "Smoking can kill you" and "Cigarettes are addictive."
All cigarette advertising is banned in Canada; the only promotional avenue is event sponsorship, including sports, culture and the arts, and the marketing of merchandise, like tote bags and T-shirts bearing a cigarette's name.
Canadian cigarette marketers are vehement in their opposition.
"What's disturbing is that the federal government is going ahead, writing the regulation for plain packaging, even though [Health Minister] Diane Marleau has conceded that there's no real evidence showing that plain packaging can reduce consumption," said Robert Parker, president of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council.
The top three manufacturers-Imperial Tobacco Ltd., a subsidiary of Imasco Ltd.; Rothmans Benson & Hedges, a subsidiary of Philip Morris Cos., and RJR MacDonald, a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.-account for 99% of cigarette sales in Canada, according to A.C. Nielsen & Co.
Cigarette sales volume, as stated by A.C. Nielsen for the year ending May 28, 1994, topped 23.25 billion cigarettes, with Imperial Tobacco Co. accounting for 65%, Rothmans Benson & Hedges for 21% and R.J. Reynolds-MacDonald for 13%.
Philip Morris has warned Canadian legislators it would reconsider future investment should the plain package be required and would seek compensation for its banned trademarks. The Marlboro trademark alone is valued worldwide at $39.5 billion, an industry executive estimated.
But the Canadian government has budgeted $41 million for a three-year anti-smoking campaign, handled by McKim Baker Lovett/ BBDO, Toronto.
Package design executives are considering ways to retain branding, should plain packaging become law, including stamping names on the cigarettes themselves.