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Tobacco fight turned fierce a decade ago
Politics Watch News Services
October 25, 2007, updated 5:00 p.m.

The Supreme Court recently upheld Canada's tobacco advertising law.

OTTAWA  (PoliticsWatch.com) —  The recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada upholding the constitutionality of Canada's laws on tobacco advertising and promotion, under the Tobacco Act of 1997 and the Tobacco Products Information Regulations, was welcome news. 
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Tobacco Act and its passage by Parliament. Given the act's sweeping new power to regulate the tobacco industry and its products, some advocates heralded it as the world's toughest legislation on tobacco. 

The battle, although it may look easy in retrospect, was at times fierce and downright nasty. Big tobacco, with its money and influence, had celebrated a major legal victory when the supreme court decreed the former Tobacco Control Act unconstitutional. This 1995 decision jolted the federal government. At Health Canada there was no contingency plan; at Justice there was dismay, while the Privy Council Office was demanding Health Canada do something - and quickly. 

My tenure at Health Canada began in early January 1996 with pressing issues of tainted blood, AIDS funding, reproductive rights, a federal-provincial rift about health care funding, growing concerns about aboriginal health and a wobbling national commission on health care. 

With thousands of Canadians dying each year from tobacco-related illnesses, no federal statute in place, and health care groups demanding the government take action, the health issue helped set the stage for a rock 'em, sock 'em year. 

Throughout 1996 the tobacco industry waged a vigorous campaign against any replacement legislation. Many in the arts community, who were receiving money from Big Tobacco to sponsor their events, cranked up the rhetoric. In Parliament, the Bloc Quebecois took up their cause. In my own party, there were serious doubters, in both in the Commons and the Senate. 

The media were very much attuned to the competing interests. By and large, they reported correctly: the new government planned to address every aspect of tobacco marketing, including how the product was manufactured, packaged and promoted, and where and how it could be sold and distributed. The media also accurately reported that the government was not well organized, was ill-prepared on the health issue and was slow to respond to the 1995 court decision. The government needed time to get its ducks in order; the longer it took, the more difficult it became. 

What Canadians didn't see was the courage and dedication of some very committed public servants, the class and professionalism of provincial ministers of health, the advocacy skills of some national health care groups, and the support of MPs and senators who were to ensure passage of the 1997 legislation. 

Michele Jean, deputy minister of health, and her senior policy team were particularly helpful in setting out the framework of the policy and enhancing our relationships with key stakeholders. The legal team of Chris McNaughton and Louise MacGuire were outstanding. Judy Ferguson, Bill Moya, Murray Kaiserman, Byron Rodgers, Carla Giliders, Franca Gotta, France Pegeat and Carole LaCombe were all able and dedicated public servants. 

Garfield Mahood of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, with his go-for-the-juggler style of politics, aided by Dr. Andrew Pipe, gave real urgency and profile to the issue. Rob Cunningham, a recognized legal expert with the Canadian Cancer Society, provided a great deal of legal advice on what was taking place in other parts of the world. His historical knowledge of Canada's tobacco wars was very insightful and helpful. David Hill, with the Heart and Stroke Association, was very thoughtful in his advocacy. 

At home in Cape Breton, a young medical doctor, Dr. Andrew Lynk, called me at my home, visited my constituency office, and spoke out in the local media about the effects of tobacco. He was thoughtful in his comments and eager to have his government do the right thing. It has always been my contention that citizen advocacy is essential for the formulation of good public policy. 

Jim Wilson, the Progressive Conservative health minister in Ontario, Jean Rochon, the Parti Quebecois health minister, and Ron Stewart, Liberal health minister in Nova Scotia, helped keep the debate focused. 

At the federal political level, Grant Hill, a reform MP and medical doctor from Alberta, was courageous and extremely helpful. Hill supported the legislation and helped to expedite its passage while a member of the Official Opposition. The Reform MP rightly criticized the government for dragging its feet on introducing new legislation. Although Hill and I were not friends, he believed in the cause and put his partisan difference aside for the common good. 

Alan Rock, federal minister of justice in 1996-97, was of immense assistance, solid at the cabinet table. Rock believed in the cause and directed his officials to be helpful in drafting the bill. 

The pressure on Rock to scuttle or delay the bill on legal grounds was substantive. Big Tobacco and their legal minions, coupled with the relentless lobby by some of the arts community, could have forced a weak minister to seek further consultation on the finer points. Rock in private life was a top litigator and he knew the loopholes we had to close. 

The behind-the-scenes efforts of my own political staff rarely got public thanks though their insights and perseverance were vital to success. Perhaps at another time there might be a book: How Five Women Smoked Big Tobacco. Martine Manard, Gloria McArter, Michel Bishop, Allison MacNeil and especially Athana Mentzelopoulos were all warriors and champions of the common good. Their commitment, along with that of provincial and federal politicians, enabled me to shepherd the Tobacco Act into law. 

During the past 10 years, provinces and smaller communities have continued to enact laws that work towards a smoke-free environment for all. 

David C. Dingwall was federal minister of health from January 1996 to June 1997 in the Liberal government of Jean Chretien. 

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