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One government change and Big Tobacco's effort to sidestep menthol cigarette ban goes up in smoke

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Sarah Hoffman

HALIFAX, N.S.

What next? Apparently Alberta's NDP government is now making decisions based on the best interests of the province's citizens!

One wonders where this sort of thing could lead? Here in Nova Scotia, for example, a ban on flavoured cigarettes went into effect yesterday -- The Horror! The Horror! -- and Big Tobacco has vowed to take the battle to block the prohibition to the courts.

I guess you could argue that banning menthol in cigarettes -- along with a variety of other flavours that make it easy for young people to get hooked on smoking -- isn't in the interests of Albertans. I'm sure I heard a tobacco industry spokesperson trying to say just that on the radio the other morning in Edmonton.

Just the same, it seems reasonable at least to believe that the announcement yesterday by Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman to the effect the minty flavouring would be made illegal in cigarettes along with other fruity flavours was done because the government is now making decisions based on what it thinks is in the best interest of Albertans.

What's more, if you begin with Ms. Hoffman's proposition that "we don't want young people to start using tobacco," then it's pretty hard to argue against a ban on menthol and other flavourings.

The really interesting question is not whether mentholated coffin nails are a Good Thing or a Bad Thing -- that's pretty well established -- but why Alberta's previous Progressive Conservative governments never seemed to get around to doing anything about it.

Former PC health minister Stephen Mandel, for example, left menthol off the list when the Tories agreed to a ban on most other tobacco flavourings. That policy officially starts today in Alberta, but doesn't really come into effect for another four months so that merchants have an opportunity to sell off their inventory. In Nova Scotia, retailers are complaining bitterly that they weren't given enough time to sell their leftover flavoured smokes to teenagers.

Mr. Mandel responded at the time to questions about the decision not to include menthol in the ban by saying it would be unfair to old people because they're used to smoking mentholated cigarettes.

According to Ms. Hoffman yesterday, though, this isn't very likely, seeing as only 4 per cent of adult smokers use menthol cigarettes -- while more than a third of teens just taking up the habit do.

Regardless -- and whether or not this would have made any difference is unclear -- it's certainly true that Big Tobacco was one of many industries that put a lot of effort into lobbying the previous government and, for reasons that seemed pretty sensible at the time, ignored the NDP.

They had better connections in the Wildrose Party, though, just in case. Alert readers will recall former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith's previous work for three right-wing AstroTurf groups that shilled for the tobacco industry. Under her leadership the party opposed bans on all candy-flavoured tobacco.

Such circumstances may explain the phenomenon reported recently in the blogosphere of major and not-so-major lobbying firms scooping up almost anyone they can find with a hint of orange, no matter how faint, about them. My blogging colleague Dave Cournoyer's account of this was so accurate and detailed it soon showed up almost word for word in a newsletter that charges subscribers for such not-so-exclusive information!

Mind you, it's not only tobacco lobbyists that made this kind of mistake. I can recall a well-known anti-tobacco lobbyist not so long ago disdaining my advice to leak a (tobacco) juicy story to the Dippers, not the Alberta Liberals. (Who they? – Ed.)

This situation may also explain the goings on in other industries. Bitumen extractor Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., for example, which has had a pretty comfortable relationship with previous PC governments, seemed to be acting last week as if it were contemplating a capital strike in Alberta if the new government won't start acting like the old one, which is to say like a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry.

Well, that, as the Globe and Mail suggested, may not turn out to be very savvy government relations, but then, as we were just saying, there aren't that many government-relations types around with experience dealing with NDP governments, whose personnel won't necessarily ask how high when a corporation orders them to jump.

Well, I'm rambling. Let's get back to the topic of tobacco.

Alberta's New Democrats may also want to give some thought to who is representing the province in that effort launched by the Redford Government to recover $10 billion from several tobacco companies for the costs of treating former smokers for various maladies.

There's some background in Briefing Note AR3999, the one that's never been made public but which is said to explain how the Redford Government chose a legal firm that employed Alison Redford's ex-husband to represent it in the case. Presumably that document didn't accidentally go into the shredder with all the other stuff.

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

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