Antismoking groups blast McLellan
Health Minister is undermining tobacco control, coalition complains
By ANDRÉ PICARD
PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTER
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, May 28, 2003 - Page A8
A coalition of health and antismoking groups is lashing out at Health Minister Anne McLellan, saying her indifference and inaction are undermining Canada's tobacco-control strategy.
In a strongly worded ad to be published in today's Globe and Mail, they accuse the minister of failing to implement new measures against smoking, of being too soft on industry, and of diverting funds earmarked for tobacco-control initiatives to other programs in Health Canada.
"We felt we were making progress on tobacco controls with other ministers, but, for some inexplicable reason, things have slowed to a snail's pace with this minister," Ken Kyle, director of public issues at the Canadian Cancer Society, said in an interview.
"We believe this ad is assertive, but it's fair," he said. "Tobacco kills 45,000 people every year. This is not a time to backpedal on tobacco control."
Ms. McLellan rejected out of hand the claim that she is footdragging. "We're doing more, spending more and having more impact than ever before," she said in an interview last night. "Perhaps not in a way some activists would prefer but we're doing a good job."
The full-page ad charges that Ms. McLellan has been "backpedalling on a number of issues" that her predecessor in the health portfolio made a priority.
In particular, the coalition of 30 health groups, including the Canadian Lung Association, Cancer Care Ontario and the Canadian Nurses Association, charges the minister with "raiding" the tobacco-control fund of more than over $13-million over the past two years and diverting the money to other programs. The fund, which was allocated $480-million over a five-year period, was designed to bolster public-health initiatives to discourage smoking.
The Health Minister acknowledged that money was reallocated to other priorities but said she does not apologize for that at all.
The ad says she has failed to follow through on a government promise to ban the cigarette terms "light" and "mild," which antismoking groups describe as fraudulent.
Former Health Minister Allan Rock said the terms would be banned because they are deceitful, leaving the impression that light and mild cigarettes pose less of a health risk. In fact, despite the descriptions, they contain just as much tar and nicotine.
Research has shown that many smokers of light brands compensate by smoking more and inhaling more deeply.
The industry argues that the terms are intended to indicate different tastes.
Mr. Kyle said that not only has Ms. McLellan failed to act against mild cigarettes but, during her tenure as Health Minister, she has not implanted a single new regulation under the Tobacco Act.
"There's a number of things the minister could do, particularly to curtail youth smoking, but nothing is being done," he said. Mr. Kyle said, for example, the federal government should ban all retail displays of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Two provinces, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have done so.
The ad says that, during Ms. McLellan's time, Health Canada has also shifted its strategy, placing the "entire responsibility on the individual rather than on corporate behaviour."
But Ms. Mclellan rejected the charge she's moving too slowly on legislation, saying it's better to avoid legal challenges. And she laughed off the claim that she is soft on tobacco manufacturers.
The health groups charge that she has "gutted" the advisory council on tobacco control and tried to silence critics of the government's tobacco-control strategy. Just last week, four members of the council resigned, saying the exercise was a waste of time.
Other high-profile members, such as Garfield Mahood of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, were dropped from the advisory role.
The ad notes that "to be fair" the groups are pleased that last year Canada experienced its largest one-year decline ever in tobacco consumption.
It credits that success to graphic tobacco warnings on cigarette packages and huge increases in tobacco taxes, both measures introduced by Ms. McLellan's predecessor.