Canada will soon be the first country in the world to mandate that a health warning be printed on every individual cigarette. The stated aims are to make tobacco less appealing, encourage people to quit smoking, and dissuade youth and others who don’t smoke from starting in the first place.
A government announcement on May 31, World No Tobacco Day, said that prominent messages on the tipping paper that encloses cigarette filters, as well as on cigars and other tobacco products,“will make it virtually impossible to avoid health warnings.”
The wording to be used has yet to be confirmed, but will be intended to “enhance public awareness about the health hazards of tobacco use,” and will accompany the warnings and graphic images that are already displayed on cigarette packs.
This “bold step” will “provide a real and startling reminder of the health consequences of smoking,” said Carolyn Bennet, minister of mental health and addictions, in the government release. “We will continue to do whatever it takes to help more people in Canada stop smoking and help young people to live healthy tobacco-free lives.”
The new regulations, which are supported by the Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Lung Association, will take effect on August 1. King-size cigarettes will be the first to display the individual warnings, in a “phased approach” over two years.
“Not once did I pick up my pack of cigarettes, look at the graphic image and think, ‘Wow, I better close up the pack and quit.’”
But will the messages actually work?
Janine Timmons, a Canadian tobacco harm reduction advocate, called the approach “futile” and “misguided.” Having smoked for 40 years, she told Filter that such shock tactics soon become invisible: “One just doesn’t see them after time passes.”
“I don’t recall examining every cigarette while taking a drag or while it burned down,” Timmons continued. She described feeling a kind of guilt due to being well aware of the damage smoking was doing to her body. But “not once did I pick up my pack of cigarettes, look at the graphic image and think, ‘Wow, I better close up the pack and quit.’”
The individual-cigarette warnings idea has been proposed before, including in the United Kingdom. There, the government-commissioned Khan Review in 2022 recommended “mandating anti-smoking messages on cigarette sticks, such as the number of ‘minutes of life lost’ per cigarette.”
But some experts felt this would do more harm than good. Clive Bates, a former director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH, UK), said at the time that the proposal was designed for “mockery and humiliation.”
Similarly, Bates told Filter of Canada’s announcement, “The idea is to humiliate and stigmatize the user by forcing them to display the warnings to those around them.”
“It’s like forcing someone to carry a banner saying, ‘Look at me; I’m an idiot,’” he continued. “In my view, it isn’t an appropriate way for a government to treat a citizen, even if it ‘works.’”
The UK government did not adopt the individual-cigarette warnings recommendation. Instead, when announcing a package of policies in April—including distributing free vape kits to a million people who smoke—it stipulated “mandatory cigarette pack inserts with positive messages and information to help people to quit smoking.”
While that “positive” wording isn’t yet confirmed either, this points to an emphasis on practical solutions, rather than dire warnings or horrifying images of disease—an approach that Timmons endorses.
“Instead of using fear and guilt, it’s time to include, in each pack of cigarettes, helpful information and facts about vaping.”
She was eventually able to end her decades of smoking thanks to vapes, which recreated “the ritual of smoking” while giving her nicotine “with only 5 percent of the risk of combustible tobacco,” she said.
Significantly, “fear was not a motivator” for her success in switching.
“Instead of using fear and guilt to motivate one to quit, as messaging on cigarette packs and cigarettes does, it’s time to include, in each pack of cigarettes, helpful information and facts about vaping,” Timmons said. “Facts and a proven, successful solution may garner more attention.”
Canada currently has an adult smoking rate of 13 percent, and suffers close to 50,000 annual smoking-related deaths. The new warnings are intended to “support Canada’s Tobacco Strategy and its target of reaching less than 5 percent tobacco use by 2035.”
Yet vape manufacturers are unable to inform Canadians that vapes are far less harmful alternatives to cigarettes—unless they receive authorization under the country’s Food and Drugs Act, which no manufacturer has yet obtained.
On the other hand, Health Canada, which in recent years has sought to ban the vape flavors that most people who switch prefer, may be changing its tune.
The department now states that “switching completely to vaping nicotine is less harmful than continuing to smoke;” that evidence does not support “serious unwanted effects while using vaping products to quit;” and that “vaping nicotine may help a greater proportion of people quit smoking than nicotine replacement therapy.”
So vape-positive messaging is apparently allowed at a government level.
“Merely painting a gruesome picture may even backfire—if unaccompanied by a good plan of action.”
But it remains true that “vaping has encountered a massive and successful misinformation campaign,” noted David Sweanor, an industry expert who chairs the advisory board of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa.
“To change behavior, there needs to be both motivation and facilitation, and healthy choices should be made easy choices,” he told Filter. “Fear-based messages without clear, specific and effective means to reduce the danger are well known to be ineffective.”
Sweanor pointed to the New York Times bestselling book Yes!: 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion (2007, by Noah J. Goldstein), which, he said, illustrates how “merely painting a gruesome picture of the impact of dangerous behaviors, such as smoking, having unprotected sex and drunk driving, may … even backfire—if unaccompanied by a good plan of action.”
Echoing Timmons’ and Bates’ thoughts, Sweanor said that the individual-cigarette messages, “in the context of Canadians being hugely misinformed about options to reduce risks,” are “a recipe for shaming and stigmatizing people who smoke cigarettes, rather than empowering them to make better health decisions.”
Photograph via PickPik