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Big Tobacco will be pleased as Derek Fildebrandt's 'liberty' video assails restrictions on flavoured cigarettes

Derek Fildebrandt (Photo: David Climenhaga)

Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt is continuing his party's tradition of supporting Big Tobacco's right to get children hooked on smoking by targeting them with mentholated and candy-flavoured cigarettes.

Naturally, that's not the way Fildebrandt, who has let it be known he is pondering a run for the leadership of the United Conservative Party, phrases it in a social media video for his "United Liberty" PAC -- sorry, but that phrase used the way the MLA for Strathmore-Brooks does just screams out for scare quotes. Just the same, it's what his attack on regulations banning flavoured tobacco really means.

In what is billed as opposition to the "nanny state," the self-described libertarian's fund-raising entity accuses Alberta's NDP government of "even deciding what flavours of tobacco are appropriate for adults."

In reality, Alberta's regulations concerning flavoured tobacco have precious little to do with adults and plenty to do with protecting children and youth from the use of flavoured cigarettes as a gateway to tobacco addiction.

As Fildebrandt presumably knows, about four per cent of adult tobacco users smoke, for example, mentholated cigarettes, while about a third of youth smokers do. "Menthol cigarettes are starter products that make it easier for youth to get hooked on tobacco," said Angeline Webb of the Alberta/N.W.T. Division of the Canadian Cancer Society when the government announced the flavoured-tobacco ban in May 2015.

What's more, some say Premier Rachel Notley's government has been too timid in its approach to tobacco regulation, banning candy-flavoured smokes in June 2015 but failing to add menthol cigarettes to the general prohibition until the following September.

Last week, the Campaign for a Smoke Free Alberta, a coalition of prominent health organizations, assailed the government for not yet banning all forms of flavoured tobacco and for failing, moreover, to actively enforce its ban on tobacco sales to minors.

During the 2014-15 school year, according to the Canadian Youth Tobacco and Drug Survey commissioned by Health Canada and cited by the coalition, more than 25,000 Alberta young people in Grades 6 to 12 had used tobacco products in the previous 30 days.

But defending tobacco industry wishes is nothing new for Fildebrandt or the Wildrose Party.

As reported in this space in November 2015, Fildebrandt appeared then to be drawing on Big Tobacco's playbook for arguments against higher tobacco taxes. In debate that year on the NDP government's amendments to the Tobacco Tax Act, Fildebrandt trotted out one of the tobacco industry's favourite arguments against higher taxes, the claim they encourage sales of contraband cigarettes.

Back in 2012, when he was Alberta spokesperson for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Fildebrandt used the same argument in a handout on the supposed problem of contraband tobacco that was produced and distributed by the organization.

Most tobacco experts, however, dismiss such claims. A 2015 study by the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, funded by that province's health ministry, debunked the argument tobacco taxes contribute to contraband smuggling, describing the claim as a "myth."

Moreover, according to estimates from other sources, contraband tobacco today accounts for less than 2 per cent of legal tobacco sales in Alberta, which has effective laws in this area, making a rise in smuggling here unlikely.

Also in 2012, then Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith was vowing never to raise taxes on tobacco -- or, in her defence, on anything else. In 2003, Smith was making the same arguments in her Calgary Herald column. "Tobacco companies are not to blame for the trade in contraband cigarettes," she wrote. "Unless governments realize high taxes are the real cause, the smuggling business will thrive."

In 2007, as Director of Provincial Affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, she wrote to then health minister Dave Hancock to argue against the restrictions on retail displays of tobacco products then proposed by the Progressive Conservative government.

When Fildebrandt announced the creation of "United Liberty" on June 22, his press release called for the UPC to embrace "a new, liberty-conservatism that limits the role of government in both the economic and the social spheres, that respects the right of the individual to live their life however they choose."

With that in mind -- not to mention his stated wish to target Millennial voters -- Fildebrandt's "liberty" video complains that "people are being charged for consuming marijuana in the privacy of their homes" and "for daring to drink a glass of wine over a picnic at the park." Restrictions on the public consumption of alcohol, it says as a sinister soundtrack plays in the background, are happening "despite being legal in countries like France."

While it's interesting to see Fildebrandt supporting Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's marijuana-legalization policy (which similarly conservative former prime minister Stephen Harper called "something we do not want to encourage") and the French approach to regulation (which the similarly conservative Washington Post condemned as 'a vast straitjacket holding back economic activity"), one suspects this isn't really what he has in mind at all when he says "liberty."

More likely, one imagines, the founder of the Reagan-Goldwater Society at Carleton University is thinking of the liberty of U.S. lung cancer victims to choose whatever level of health care they can afford to pay for under Trumpcare.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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