TORONTO — “Poison in every puff.” “Cigarettes cause impotence.” “Tobacco smoke harms children.”
Those are the warnings that smokers in Canada will soon find on every single cigarette they light, as the country sets into motion a plan requiring tobacco companies to print health warnings directly onto cigarette filters.
The labels will appear in English and French, Canada’s official languages, and are intended to blunt the allure of smoking among young people, adults looking to quit and those addicted to nicotine, the government said on Wednesday.
Canada is a global leader in targeting tobacco use through health hazard labels. Graphic illustrations of some of the health outcomes of smoking, such as images of cancerous tumors or decaying teeth, have appeared on cigarette boxes in Canada since 2001, when it became the first country to feature depictions of serious smoking-related illnesses on packaging. It was also the first country to ban smoking on its domestic flights, followed by international flights on Canadian airlines in 1994.
Smoking is on the decline in Canada, and the country’s health services aim to reduce it even further. Currently, 10.2 percent of people over age 15 smoke cigarettes, and the government’s goal is to reduce that to less than 5 percent by 2035.
Within the next year, smokers will begin to see the new labels printed on their individual cigarettes, as well as an updated warning label on cigarette boxes.
“We are taking action by being the first country in the world to label individual cigarettes with health warning messages,” Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of mental health and addictions, said in a statement. “This bold step will make health warning messages virtually unavoidable, and together with updated graphic images displayed on the package, will provide a real and startling reminder of the health consequences of smoking.”
Research suggests these types of labels can be helpful. One study published in 2006 of 9,000 adult smokers in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia found that people who noticed the warnings had greater awareness of specific health risks associated with smoking. A meta-analysis published in 2015 that analyzed data from several studies found that warning labels evoked negative attitudes toward smoking and increased people’s intentions either to quit smoking or not start smoking; however, image warnings were more effective than text warnings.
There was once extreme pushback against labeling policies decades ago, but some tobacco companies, at least publicly, are endorsing the new move. Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, the Canadian subsidiary of the tobacco company Philip Morris International, said it supported Canada’s directive when the government announced its plans for the new regulations last June.
Under the expanded labeling, people who smoke one pack per day would see antismoking messages at least 7,300 times and even more when accounting for each puff, said Geoffrey Fong, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, and principal investigator at the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project.
“There are no public health messages or messages of any kind that have that type of exposure,” said Professor Fong. “There’s a lot of potential for these dissuasive warning labels, dissuasive cigarettes, to be impactful.”
Estimates on the number of smokers in the country vary, but according to the data published last August by Canada’s census agency, there are 3.8 million daily and occasional smokers over the age of 12. About 48,000 Canadians die from smoking each year, the health agency said.
Dana G. Smith contributed reporting from Durham, N.C.