Thank you, Mr. Chair. Good afternoon, honourable members. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
As you heard, my name is Melodie Tilson. I'm the director of policy with the Non-Smokers' Rights Association. With me is our senior policy analyst, Pippa Beck. Together we have more than 40 years of experience in tobacco control.
Our organization, the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, has been at the forefront of tobacco reforms in Canada since its inception in 1974, leading campaigns for the federal Tobacco Products Control Act and its successor the Tobacco Act, and for plain packaging as far back as 1994—so the impetus for plain packaging around the world including Canada did not come from Australia's move in 2012 just to correct that piece of misinformation—and for world-precedent setting graphic health warnings on packages, to name just a few.
It is this wealth of experience in effective regulation of an addictive and harmful product, one that is primarily smoked, that we bring to bear on your consideration of issues related to the appropriate regulation of cannabis and in particular the packaging and labelling of these products.
First let me say we are pleased that the government recognized the importance of taking a public health approach to the regulation of cannabis. Such an approach prioritizes measures to maintain and improve health by minimizing the harms associated with use. However, where there is a profit motive in the selling of drugs, public health is at risk. Make no mistake.
The tobacco industry has shown us what an uncontrolled industry is willing to do in pursuit of profit. Big tobacco is the disease vector whose activities and behaviours are responsible for the entirely preventable epidemic that we continue to battle today. Cannabis legalization needs to be protected from commercial interest or Canada could face big tobacco 2.0, big cannabis. Indeed, there are indications from jurisdictions that have already legalized cannabis that this risk is very real.
The federal government has the opportunity to learn from tobacco's grievous history and to get the legal framework for the cannabis industry right or at least more right from the outset.
So what should a public health approach to cannabis regulation entail? We fully support the government's goals of preventing youth from accessing cannabis and protecting public health and safety by establishing strict product requirements. Note that expanding the cannabis industry and its market should not be a goal.
Given the focus of this panel, I will devote most of my remarks to packaging issues, but before doing so, I would like to highlight a few other areas where cannabis regulation would benefit from lessons learned in tobacco control.
Keeping cannabis out of the hands of youth will require devoting adequate resources to enforcing the ban on underage sales and imposing penalties for non-compliance that are high enough to serve as deterrents.
Safeguarding public health requires measures to protect the public from breathing second-hand cannabis smoke. This means including the smoking of cannabis in all federal and provincial smoke-free laws as recommended by the Canadian Cancer Society and others to this committee.
Finally, providing adequate public education is essential, not only about the risks of use, but also about the risks of breathing second-hand smoke and about relative risk. There is little public understanding of the fact that smoke is smoke, and most of the risk comes from inhaling smoke whether tobacco or cannabis, or of the fact that vaping poses much less risk to health than smoking.
One of the reasons for Canada's success in reducing smoking rates is our multipronged, decades-long effort to de-normalize tobacco products and tobacco use so that smoking is no longer a social norm. Tight restrictions on advertising and promotion have been integral to changing the social norm.
The task force on cannabis legalization and regulation rightly concluded in a discussion paper that:
Since marketing, advertising and promotion of marijuana would only serve to “normalize” it in society and encourage and increase usage, it has been proposed that these should be strictly limited so as to dampen widespread use and reduce associated harms.
In its final report, the task force recommended comprehensive restrictions on advertising and promotion and plain packaging for cannabis products.
Our organization supports a comprehensive ban on cannabis promotion with the exception of information advertising in stores off-limits to minors. Because packaging is a key form of promotion, NSRA strongly supports requiring cannabis products to be sold only in plain packaging.
The recommendation for plain packaging is based on a large body of robust research including consumer product research and internal tobacco company documents.
There have been more than 100 studies from at least 10 countries, including 25 empirical studies conducted in Australia since plain and standardized packaging was implemented there five years ago, and the experience in jurisdictions that have already legalized cannabis.
I would like to show you just a few examples of cannabis packages available in jurisdictions where it is legal, but where packaging is not strictly controlled.
As you can see, a wide range of consumers are targeted, from youth, obviously in these examples, to perhaps young adults to sophisticated adult consumers. It is no wonder it has been said that a product is just a product. The packaging is the brand. When most other forms of promotion are prohibited, the package not surprisingly becomes the most important marketing vehicle. As early as the 1970s, tobacco companies foresaw the day when their ability to promote their products would rest solely on the pack.
According to a 1979 document by British American Tobacco:
Under conditions of [a] total [advertising] ban, pack designs…have enormous importance…. Therefore, the most effective symbols, designs, colour schemes, graphics, and other brand identifiers should be carefully researched. An objective should be to enable packs, by themselves, to convey the total product message.
There is substantial evidence from consumer product research that effective packaging increases sales. For example, when milk in school cafeterias was sold in plastic bottles instead of the traditional gable-top cardboard cartons that we're all familiar with, sales increased by as much as 24%. Students said the milk tasted better, and all of a sudden it became cool and fun to drink.
Shape and colour are two design elements that exert a strong influence on brand image and the impact of packaging. Package colouring is one way tobacco companies target specific brands to specific subpopulations.
This pack of Vogue Super Slims featuring pastel colours on the outside as well as matching liners is a prime example of a brand targeting young women. The brand name Vogue Super Slims clearly preys on the body image concerns of young women. Also noteworthy is the pack's diminutive size. Various studies demonstrate that consumers perceive that cigarettes in these tiny packs are less harmful than cigarettes in a standard pack. The pack size also enables tobacco companies to circumvent the intent of Canada's large graphic health warnings. As you can see, with a pack of this small size compared to a standard slide and shell pack, the image has virtually no impact, and the text is illegible.
As their ability to exploit packaging elements to promote sales has been curtailed, tobacco companies have become more creative with brand and variant names, using names to connote aspirational lifestyles, reduced risk, or misleading product attributes. For example, the brands LD Club Night and Peter Stuyvesant New York Blend both conjure images of a hip urban lifestyle.
We are concerned that without restrictions here in Canada, the same will happen with cannabis brands. A quick Internet search revealed evocative names such as Suicide Girls, Pura Vida Health, and Everyone Does it.
The large and growing body of research on plain and standardized tobacco packaging shows that plain packaging reduces the ability of the pack to create and communicate brand images, increases the effectiveness of health warnings, reduces package-based deception, and ultimately reduces tobacco use. Indeed, prevalence of smoking in Australia, despite what my colleague has said, is at a historic low with an independent assessment concluding that the packaging reforms were responsible for one-quarter of the total decline in smoking rates during the first three years after plain packaging was implemented.
Given the government's stated intention of taking a public health approach to regulating cannabis to reduce harms, a comprehensive ban on promotion is warranted, including strict controls over brand names and a requirement that cannabis products be sold in plain packaging with no promotional elements, health claims, or any kind of false or misleading statement. Only essential information should be permitted on cannabis packaging.
To conclude, we support a public health framework for the legalization and regulation of cannabis sales in Canada. We believe the measures we have proposed will go a long way to further safeguard the interests of public health.
As Professor Hammond said, “it is [much] easier to loosen restrictions” on advertising, promotion, and packaging down the road if warranted, rather than trying to rein in a burgeoning market and a powerful industry.
Thank you. We look forward to your questions.