Tobacco Info

From Tobacco Info No. 9 - April 2012
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Health groups forced to cut jobs while waiting for new federal strategy

 

By Geoffrey Lansdell

 

As the Canadian government closes in on its March 31st deadline to address the expiring Federal Tobacco Control Strategy (FTCS), is no news good news or bad news?

 

For many health groups, having no commitment from the federal government with a looming deadline means there will be an inevitable gap to their funding even if Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq unveils a new strategy that funds some of the tobacco control organizations whose budgets come in whole or in part from Health Canada.

 

One of those organizations is Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. Executive director Cynthia Callard says that although “Our funding is not yet renewed, we are hopeful that Health Canada will continue to see us as good partners in the implementation of the FTCS. If they don’t we will move to a different operating model to maintain operations.”

 

Callard also points out that “On the day before the election was called, the health minister made two statements that encourage us to hope that the next federal tobacco strategy will be ambitious. I am particularly encouraged by the health minister’s statement that the government is committed to ‘innovative approaches’, to ‘remain a world leader’, and ‘to ensure a clear role for the federal government in this area of shared jurisdiction.’ However, there has been no indication of how this innovative, world-leadership worthy federal role will be developed, and whether there is any place for community groups to participate in its development. This is our current priority.”

 

As a brief history of Canada’s FTCS, the Government of Canada introduced a 10-year commitment in 2001, designed to address four interdependent areas of tobacco control: protection, prevention, cessation, and harm reduction. At the time, Canada was one of the first countries to ratify the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). And when Canadian Liberal Health Minister Allan Rock announced the introduction of graphic warning labels that would cover fifty per cent of every cigarette pack, Canada became a pioneering country in the realm of tobacco control. That reputation is now hanging in the balance and a lot will depend on what kind of commitment Health Canada makes to the FTCS.

 

With last year’s one year extension — issued to “Allow for the completion of the ten-year FTCS summative evaluation”, according to Health Canada’s website regarding the future of federal tobacco control — set to expire at the end of March, Denis Choinière, Health Canada’s director of regulations and compliance, said there will be “No announcement for the time being.”

 

Regarding a potential announcement on the FTCS, Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), points out that with the federal budget scheduled for March 29, any announcement regarding the FTCS is likely to come with the budget or shortly thereafter. While waiting for the budget, the question is, what can we expect to see from the federal government on the FTCS?

 

Despite previous statements from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that the government plans to reduce the budget by at least $4 billion per year to eventually eliminate the $31 billion deficit by 2016, Flaherty said when announcing the budget date that with an annual budget of more than $265 billion, “We’re talking about relatively small spending reductions in a budget of that size.”

 

So what do the potential budget cuts mean for the future of the FTCS? For his part, Cunningham points out that Health Canada had a consultation in September 2011 on the FTCS and that “We may see a 5-year strategy.” Regarding a potential direction for a new FTCS, Cunningham indicated that “We know the government is committed to investing more in quitlines (and) they are interested in doing something with social media aimed at youth as they announced on December 30, 2010.”

Only time will tell what the federal government has been working on over the past two years behind closed doors, but in the meantime, a lot of tobacco control groups are anxiously awaiting the verdict.