The hope is that this action will reduce smoking rates among both minors and adults of legal age.
Just to be clear, I am president of the Atlantic Convenience Stores Association. The vast majority of legal tobacco is sold through convenience store retailers, so I’m not arms-length from this issue.
Tobacco is a legal product sold by licensed retailers to adults over the legal age. And governments collect a whack of taxes from these sales. Convenience retailers also contribute to smoking reduction efforts by adhering to tobacco display rules and screening for proof of age identification to prevent tobacco sales to minors.
The proposed rules would make tobacco packages completely plain, removing any colour, fonts or other stylistic features that distinguish one brand from another. So what's the big deal?
As businesspeople, taxpayers and parents, we like to see government decisions that are evidence-based. The only evidence for plain tobacco packaging is in Australia, and that experiment has been a failure: there has been no further reduction in smoking rates and the black market flourished.
And what about unintended consequences?
Take for example the higher labour costs that retailers will incur managing tobacco inventories. You wouldn’t believe how many times a pack or carton of cigarettes gets counted. When you take away a brand name, logo or distinctive colour as a visual cue, you must read each package to identify the brand. Sounds simplistic, but it’s more time and those extra labour costs really add up.
Plain tobacco packaging can only add fuel to Canada’s multi-billion-dollar illegal cigarette problem. These traffickers don't care about rules. And underage or legal age, they certainly don’t care about who they sell product to.
Branded packaging gives consumers guarantees of quality and reliability, and helps them distinguish one product from another. Without branding, the deciding factor for many becomes price, and the cheapest price are the illegal products sold by traffickers at one-tenth the price of legal product.
How does that help to reduce smoking rates?
Illegal tobacco accounts for about 20 percent of Canada's total cigarette market. By making it nearly impossible for smokers, retailers and law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, it’s not hard to surmise that plain tobacco packaging will be a boost to the illegal trade.
Driving more smokers to the illegal market undermines most everyone’s goal of reducing smoking rates and stopping young people from smoking. If the federal government really wants to address these issues, it needs to take action to fight the illegal tobacco market and invest more in anti-smoking education programs in schools and public awareness campaigns.
President, Atlantic Convenience Stores Association