Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Health warnings on Twinkies?

Back in September, 2010, Canada's federal health authority, Health Canada, advised its provincial counterparts of its intention to postpone the introduction of new regulations requiring tobacco companies to display new graphic warnings on cigarette packs. Health Canada spent an estimated 3.6 million taxpayer dollars on studies and focus groups over the last six years or so, analyzing the potential benefits of larger, more grotesque warning labels on smoking prevalence rates.

In addition to new graphics, the cigarette packs were to include a proposed toll-free smoking cessation help line.

Anti-smoker zealots were, of course, outraged at the delay and began a public campaign to persuade politicians to implement the new warnings immediately. They claim bigger, more gruesome warnings will cause at least some smokers to think twice about their habit and perhaps quit.

According to Gar Mahood, Executive Director of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, “the renewed and improved warnings will, over time, prevent tens of thousands of tobacco deaths." Uh-huh.

Rob Cunningham, of the Canadian Cancer Society, echoed similar sentiments. "Implementation of the new, larger package warnings will be an important achievement, and will reduce cancer and other tobacco-related diseases in Canada.”

And, Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada claim: “Large health warnings also reduce the attractiveness of cigarette packages and help create an environment where smoking is less acceptable.”

The health warnings currently used in Canada were introduced in 2001 and were ostensibly designed to inform the public about the harmful effects of smoking, such as an increased risk for lung cancer and heart disease, as well as the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke. But, in fact, that has never been their real function.

The graphic images were actually meant to “encourage” smokers to quit by providing a constant reminder of the alleged health hazards of smoking. But, most smokers have become desensitized to the warning labels. So, the anti-smoker zealots have been pushing Health Canada to force tobacco companies to display larger, more shocking images on their cigarette packaging in the hope that the negative imagery might persuade a few more smokers to give up the habit.

A group of eight anti-smoker organizations, hinting that the government had caved in to pressure from the tobacco industry, sent a letter to Canada's Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, pointing out that Health Canada's own research shows larger graphics could cause some smokers to quit. “The research commissioned by your department shows clearly that the larger the warning, the greater the positive impact it will have on its intended target audiences.”

But . . .

Hamish Marshall, in an article in the National Post, questions the research used to support the anti-smoker contention that larger warning labels will have a significant impact on smoking prevalence. In fact, Marshall states unequivocally that the Health Canada research is “deeply flawed.”

Marshall is identified in the Post article as the chief research officer of Abingdon Research, and notes that previously he was responsible for government research in the Prime Minister's Office. One must assume he has some expertise in conducting polls and surveys.

Marshall contends that, to avoid something called "social desirability bias" , “good researchers ask their questions in ways designed to obscure the point of view of the client, providing an environment where the respondent feels safe offering "unpopular" opinions.”

However, says Marshall: “The Health Canada studies are a master lesson in doing just the opposite. They seemed to be trying to introduce as much social desirability bias as possible into their results. “ Ouch.

In other words, the surveys were manipulated to solicit answers favourable to the proposed policy of incorporating larger health warnings on cigarette packs. Having already made up their mind that new health warnings should be larger and more pornographic, Health Canada commissioned the study so they could claim public support for the new health warnings.

After pointing out many of the flaws he sees in the research, Marshall concludes his article with a little advice to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq : “Rather than listening to her bureaucrats' advice, the Health Minister would be well advised to do some research of her own: a full investigation into the research practices of Health Canada. “ Uh-huh.

Unfortunately, that advice will fall on deaf ears.

And, I wonder . . .

Since the government has assumed the right to dictate graphic design of cigarette packaging for the tobacco companies, when will they legislate graphic warnings on Cola? Twinkies? Shotgun shells? And, just how in hell will they convince the black market to display the new warnings on the 50% of cigarette sales in Ontario estimated to be contraband?

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