Despite decades of government programs and regulations, today, nearly five million Canadian adults continue to smoke.

Even if you are not a smoker yourself, chances are someone you know, love or work with, is.

About 22 per cent of the world’s population still smokes, despite successive measures by governments around the world to reduce smoking rates.

In 2019, as one of Canada’s largest tobacco companies, we launched “Unsmoke” Canada, guided by the driving principle that the best choice is never to start smoking cigarettes or for those who do, to quit entirely.

You may be wondering, “What does that even mean?” For us, “Unsmoke” means to rid your life of smoke. Simply put:

If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t quit, change.

We acknowledge that this is not a message people expect to hear from our company. But we must open our minds to have meaningful conversations about how scientific advancements have opened new doors.

Innovation can help current adult smokers by switching them from cigarettes to better technology, such as heated tobacco, vaping products, and oral smokeless tobacco products.

These alternatives are not risk free, they contain nicotine, which is addictive. But scientific evidence from around the world shows that there are much better alternatives for adults now compared to continuing to smoke cigarettes.

That’s because these alternatives do not involve burning, and therefore can potentially produce significantly lower levels of the harmful chemicals compared to those found in cigarette smoke, which are the primary cause of smoking-related diseases.

Regulations should be risk-proportionate and follow a common sense approach. Not all tobacco and nicotine products are the same. The most harmful products involving combustion and smoke – such as cigarettes – should be subject to the most restrictive regulation, and adult smokers should have access to accurate information to understand how smoke-free products are fundamentally different.

What is the Role of Government?

Quite simply, governments should not regulate these smoke-free alternatives the same as cigarettes because scientific evidence shows they are not the same.

There is an opportunity in front of us right now.  The second review of the federal government’s Tobacco and Vaping Products Act (TVPA) is currently underway. This provides an opportunity for a thorough review to ensure that regulations make sense for these new technologies.

And that includes guarding against youth taking up any form of nicotine. We are emphatic – our company believes that no nicotine or nicotine-containing product should ever be in the hands of minors. The same applies to adults that aren’t currently smoking or using other nicotine products.

We support new measures to prevent youth vaping, and enforcing stricter penalties for sales to minors as well as restrictions on advertising and promotion. We also support product quality and tampering standards to ensure that products purchased by adult smokers are manufactured consistently and used as intended.

But if we think about the adults who smoke in our lives, shouldn’t they also know that better alternatives exist? Shouldn’t they be able to make informed choices about which products are right for them? Isn’t it better if they switch to a potentially less harmful product if they don’t quit altogether?

That is why Canada needs to take a balanced approach – to help adult smokers by providing access to and accurate information about smoke-free alternatives, while also guarding against youth access with smart regulations. Both can be achieved.

There’s no doubt Canada can be a global leader in reducing the harm caused by smoking, but it requires actionable steps, such as creating policy that differentiates between smoke-free products and cigarettes.

Canadians are not well informed about the alternatives to smoking that are available because our current laws don’t allow them to have access to information about these options or to distinguish the relative risks of one product to another. 

Smoke-free products should be regulated based on their relative risk to cigarettes. This would go a long way to reducing a barrier to a better choice for adult smokers.

The federal government has started to acknowledge that not all nicotine products are the same as cigarettes, but further steps are needed. Now is the time to modernize Canadian laws so that adult smokers have access to better alternatives; by doing so, we can create lasting change.

That is how together, we can Unsmoke Canada.

Kory McDonald, Head, External Affairs, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc.