Imperial Tobacco wants the government to treat cigarettes and cannabis equally

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Can I get “false equivalency” for $1,000, Alex?

In a move that will surely have cannabis consumers fuming, Imperial Tobacco Canada is speaking out against the way Bill C-45 regulates the branding of cannabis products—by boldly comparing tobacco to weed.

The corporation is seeking the attention of lawmakers in Ottawa with an advertisement it ran in the Hill Times on Monday, one that accuses the government of taking a “contradictory” approach to its intention of keeping harmful substances out of the hands of children.

As the government proceeds with the Cannabis Act, it might be that the cigarette-manufacturing company—responsible for brands like Du Maurier, John Players, and Peter Jackson—is afraid it will lose revenue when legal cannabis becomes an option for consumers, especially because the number of smokers in Canada has fallen each year since 1965. At that time, roughly half of Canadians used tobacco, but by 2015, that number had dropped to 13 percent.

The ad highlights a measure of Bill S-5, or the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, and compares it to related measures in the Cannabis Act. It was first introduced in the Senate in November 2016 and was passed there in June. It is currently awaiting a second reading in the House of Commons.

In addition to creating legislation around vaping products, the bill also introduces provisions to permit the implementation of plain-packaging requirements on tobacco products. 

That measure has raised the ire of tobacco manufacturers across the country, who are already required by the government to display health warnings for consumers on 75 percent of a cigarette package’s surface area. (Canada became the first country to mandate such warnings in 2001. The amount of space dedicated to them was raised from 50 percent to 75 percent in 2012.)

“But Bill C-45 permits branding on marijuana packaging,” the ad reads, “since the legal industry needs branding to differentiate their products from those of the black market.”

As it stands, the Cannabis Act currently permits “informational and brand-preference promotion”, enabling consumers “to make informed decisions about consumption”. Branding would be subject to restrictions so exposure to young people would be limited. 

This seems fair, based on the government’s goals, but also based on the simple fact that cannabis doesn’t even come close to touching the adverse health effects associated with smoking.

While Imperial Tobacco might wonder why a government could favour looser restrictions for a substance that has been shown to have medical value over one that results in the death of thousands of Canadians each year, we think we’ve come up with a few good reasons.

For one, cannabis use isn’t the leading preventable cause of death in Canada. That would be tobacco, killing 37,000 people each year—six times the number of fatalities caused by car accidents, suicides, murders, and HIV-AIDS combined, according to Health Canada.

And while most cannabis growers pride themselves on the purity of their pot, tobacco comes with 4,000 extra chemicals. Think tar, mercury, lead, carbon monoxide, acetone, hydrogen cyanide, and 63 other cancer-causing agents with every inhale.

Beyond lung cancer, which leads the way for cancer deaths among Canadians, smoking has been linked to cancers of the kidney, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, breast, and bladder. It has also been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Imperial Tobacco also seems to downplay the fact that cannabis isn’t physically addictive, that most marijuana consumers don’t light up as frequently as smokers, and that those who use cannabis might be vaping or ingesting it instead of smoking it. (Unlike chewing tobacco, edibles aren’t known to cause mouth cancer.)

While regular tobacco consumption can, ultimately, be lethal, the compounds within cannabis have been shown to have dozens—if not hundreds—of therapeutic and even preventive applications. Cannabis is currently being used to treat side effects associated with epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain, glaucoma, HIV-AIDS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, eating disorders, and even sexual dysfunction. (A 2013 study published in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors found that cannabidiol, or CBD, helped smokers cut down on cigarettes.)

Though the classification of cannabis as a controlled substance in Canada and a Schedule 1 drug in the United States has made it challenging for researchers to study, stigma is being shed and health scientists are eager to highlight the therapeutic benefits of cannabis consumption. As new ground is broken daily in labs around the world, it is important that the data collected on these two very different substances is not conflated.

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