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Canada gets its house in order
  1. R Stanwick
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr R Stanwick
 Chief Medical Health Officer, Vancouver Island Health Authority, #430-1900 Richmond Avenue, Victoria, BC V8R 4R2, Canada; richard.stanwickviha.ca

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Canada’s parliamentarians pass Bill C-260, an amendment to the Hazardous Products Act creating a reduced ignition propensity cigarette

It was not without some sense of historical irony that Liberal Member of Parliament in Canada, The Honourable John McKay, observed, while speaking in favor of a proposed legislative amendment, that in February 1916 much of Parliament burned to the ground. Although no official cause was ever provided, it was widely believed that a cigarette caused this fire.1

Andrew McGuire performs a great service in this issue of capturing the process that has led, after 30 years of struggle, to the introduction of safer cigarettes [see page 264]. The tactics he and his colleagues used are masterly and conjure up an image of a David and Goliath-like struggle to change the tobacco industry’s practises. In addition to admiring and acknowledging the skills displayed by McGuire, I confess to being one of his “thousands of advocates” who have also engaged the tobacco industry on this subject. For a decade, spanning the mid 1980s to mid 1990s, in conjunction with local champions in the fire suppression services, I worked on a number of fronts. Most memorable was the one involving the Product Safety Branch (PSB) of what was Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada. Although this Branch has a new home in Health Canada it continues to be responsible for the Hazardous Products Act. This is the Act that has now been amended to make cigarettes less of a fire hazard. Among one of the more remarkable discussions I had surrounding the obstacles to modifying the ignition properties of cigarettes was the rationale provided by a Branch staffer. The rationale was the same one marshalled by the tobacco industry in opposing Bill C-260 20 years later—their grave, ironic concern that the proposed changes in the construction of cigarettes could be harmful to the health of the consumer! In assessing the merits of Bill C-260, Health Canada indicated it was aware of only two papers addressing the issue, both conducted by the tobacco industry, neither of which supported the concern.2

Instead of zeroing in on cigarettes, 20 years ago Canada’s PSB elected to focus on making furniture often associated with cigarette related fires more resistant to ignition—for example, mattresses and upholstered furniture,2 and took the form of a voluntary standard. However, many pieces of furniture would not be replaced for at least 20 years and when they were near the end of their usefulness, they often found their way into the used furniture market. In all likelihood, the eventual purchasers of these products would be from a segment of the population that would also have a higher rate of smoking and therefore a higher risk of fires. PSB personnel acknowledged that had the initiative tackled cigarettes, the benefits could be realized in a period in a few months—the shelf life of tobacco products.3

McGuire is not alone in exhibiting extraordinary tenacity to this issue. The passage of Bill C-260 in Canada required the same attributes, displayed in abundance by Member of Parliament John McKay. Moving this Bill from conception to passage took more than five years, in part because Mr McKay was obliged to introduce the Bill as a Private Member’s Bill. (In the Canadian system, any Parliamentarian can introduce legislation but rarely are such Bills passed into law.) Mr McKay not only succeeded in securing the passage of Bill C-260 but did so with the support of all parties—another rarity.

Dr Yves Morin, an internationally respected researcher in internal medicine and cardiology, championed the Bill through Canada’s Senate. Dr Morin was able to ensure the legislation did not end up in limbo and it became law in late 2004. The Bill is set to come into effect on 1 October 2005.

Health Canada’s estimates suggest that the annual toll of 53 deaths, 227 injuries (51 fire fighters, 176 civilians), and 28 million dollars in property damage from cigarette caused fires will be significantly influenced by this Bill.2 A note of caution about these benefits: as reflected in the term “reduced ignition propensity cigarette”, the testing standard adopted only requires that no more that 25% of the cigarettes tested burn their full length to fulfil the regulatory obligations. Consequently, there is still the need for safe disposal of the estimated 56 billion cigarettes consumed annually in Canada.4 The promotion of smoke detectors in homes is also critical, especially in the homes of regular smokers or visitors who smoke.

There will be a significant time lag in reporting on the impact of this preventive measure on fire deaths and injuries, partly because the data are routinely generated by often lengthy fire scene investigations. Nevertheless, it behoves the Canadian injury community to monitor this achievement.5

Bill C-260 and its US counterparts are enormous achievements in injury prevention. We have long known how much reducing the damage done by cigarettes can contribute to health promotion.6 Public health approaches these opportunities using a harm reduction framework. In this, physical and social harms associated with risk taking behavior are mitigated by making these behaviors less dangerous.7–9 Efforts to date in dealing with harm reduction for tobacco have largely centered on reducing exposure to second hand smoke through restrictions to smoking in public,10 in the home,11 by substituting smokeless tobacco,12 or by lower nicotine products.13

The accomplishments of Andrew McGuire and others have made available another plank in tobacco harm reduction—the reduced ignition propensity cigarette. In addition, as suggested by McGuire, the public health implications of this accomplishment are broader. It means that tobacco companies can now be held legally liable for knowingly producing a product that is dangerous. In Canada, another possibly equally important development is the potential for the amendment to the Hazardous Product Act to set a precedent that would pave the way for other regulations that could reduce the harmful effects of tobacco products.14

Canada’s parliamentarians pass Bill C-260, an amendment to the Hazardous Products Act creating a reduced ignition propensity cigarette

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