Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 7 - October 2011
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Patriotism as a selling point

National cigarettes could violate the Tobacco Act

In recent years, tobacco companies have been using a new angle to sell their products: patriotism. Witness JTI’s Macdonald Spéciale, which, since 2005, has been sold in Quebec in a blue package with a fleur-de-lis, and in the rest of Canada, as Macdonald Special in a red package featuring a maple leaf. For its part, Philip Morris International (PMI) has been selling Canadian Classics for at least 15 years and Québec Classique since 2008.

These cheap cigarettes are finding buyers. In 2006, Canadian Classics accounted for 32% of the volume of economical cigarette sales in Western Canada, 26% in the Maritimes and 13% in Ontario, according to YCM (Your Convenience Manager) magazine. As for Québec Classique, it has gained market share since its introduction, according to the latest annual reports from PMI.

Illegal packaging?

These patriotic cigarettes may contravene the Canadian Tobacco Act. Indeed, this law prohibits any kind of lifestyle advertising, that is, “advertising that associates a product with [an] emotion about […] a way of life such as one that includes excitement.” Of course, this does not apply specifically to tobacco product packaging. However, some people argue that patriotism does represent a lifestyle. Health Canada refused to confirm this for our French publication, Info-tabac, and Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s office did not respond to our questions on the subject.

For health groups, though, there is no doubt: cigarettes that bill themselves as 100% Canadian or Québécois  represent a lifestyle, especially in light of the fact that nationalism appeals to our emotions. “The relationship that we have with our country is very emotional,” said Timothy Dewhirst, Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies at the University of Guelph. “Just think of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Canadians were proud that their country was hosting the Games and that their athletes performed well.” A product that bills itself as Canadian also lays claim to all the characteristics we associate with the country itself, like the great outdoors, purity and freshness. “All of these elements can be associated with a lifestyle, even if it is fairly ironic to associate an ‘outdoor’ lifestyle with a product that harms health,” added Dewhirst. It’s not for nothing that the Canadian Classics package shows a clear lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Packages send a message

Cigarette packaging conveys many messages about lifestyle, concludes the Chatterbox Project, a study being carried out from 2010 to 2012 by the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU). “We looked at the design of cigarette packages to see what point they transmitted messages about lifestyle and gender,” explained Shawn O’Connor, Senior Research Associate at OTRU, who has examined over 100 cigarette packages to date.  “Along the way, we discovered that the packages also have a discourse on the patriotism of the product, its strength, its youthfulness or its heritage. An example of this is a cigarette brand that says it has existed since 1850 or that it has a tradition of excellence in manufacturing.” O’Connor believes that the best way to put a stop to these messages is to require plain, standard packaging for all tobacco products. 

“Plain packaging is the only real solution because the packages are the tobacco companies’ main marketing tool,” added Garfield Mahood, Executive Director of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association. In his opinion, it is useless to question whether or not the Canadian Classics or Macdonald Special packages violate the law, or to complain about it to Health Canada. “We have seen in the past that Health Canada rarely follows up on complaints made under this law,” he explained.

By Anick Perreault-Labelle