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A lobby group by any other name…
May 27, 2002
This year's World No-Tobacco Day theme is: "Tobacco-Free Sports - Play it Clean". How much more valuable it would be in Canada if this year's theme was actually "Tobacco Control - Play it Clean". For you see, tobacco control in our country is very much out of control. At the center of this emerging chaos are publicly funded anti-tobacco lobbyists, and to the sidelines…everyone else. Relinquished to simply dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s on ever more aggressive regulations, Canadian governments have effectively painted themselves in a corner by allowing a handful of extremists to essentially wrestle stewardship of a public issue away from the public.
The Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control (MAC) was created last year by then Minister of Health, the Hon. Allan Rock. In Mr. Rock's fervor to essentially kill Senator Colin Kenny's Bill S-15 (Tobacco Youth Protection Act), he created a $210 million Mass Media component within the subsequently approved half billion dollar Federal Tobacco Control Strategy (FTCS). The creation of the MAC was a last hour initiative aimed at securing the anti-tobacco lobby's strategic support away from the Senator's Bill.
Originally designed as an Advisory Committee on Health Promotion and Tobacco, its specific mandate was to advise on "effective mass media strategies and messages"…but the anti-tobacco lobby would not be bought off that cheaply. They did what they do best and were able to secure for themselves a more comprehensive mandate which included providing strategic advice and research on tobacco taxation, product modification cessation programs, community mobilization, youth access issues and industry denormalization. With a budget of $400,000 to play with (in 2001-2002), their initial work on the Light and Mild issue in Canada painted a very clear picture of how the MAC will continue to be the anti-tobacco lobby's most effective tool for bypassing both departmental process and public accountability.
At the root of the problem is the fact that Health Canada appointed 8 longstanding federally registered lobbyists to the board's 14 original members. Never to miss an opportunity, groups like the Non-Smokers' Rights Association (NSRA), Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSFC) and the Coalition québécoise pour le contrôle du tabac(CQCT), wasted no time in filling internally created "vacancies" on sub-committees with more of their own staff. When the total tally is in, 14 members and participants on MAC are federally registered lobbyists. NSRA, for its part, has three staff members who either Chair or participate on 5 of the 7 sub-committees.
That the same extremist groups who actively lobby Health Canada on the file, under several other pseudonyms (Tobacco OR Kids, Give Kids a Chance, National Campaign for Action on Tobacco, etc.) are now well represented and in control of the MAC is in itself a red flag. Under the guise of a Ministerial Council, these same groups are now afforded yet another preferential kick at the can. Unlike for the rest of the community, they now get to lobby Health Canada from both the outside and inside…oh yes and much of it courtesy of the tax payer. As appointed members of MAC, they now provide supposedly "independent" expert advice to the Minister on the federal tobacco control strategy. This advice, we are asked to believe, is purportedly unbiased and independent of their private agendas and/or financial interests. But you decide…
The Non-Smokers' Rights Association (NSRA), for example, receives all of its advocacy funding ($410,000 in 2001-2002) from Health Canada. Their viability as a corporation depends on their ability to have Health Canada recognize them as experts and effectively buy into their agenda and approaches to tobacco control. Adding fuel to the fire, they very much have and promote a "campaign as if at war" mentality.
When we combine NSRA's public take with that of its charitable arm - the Smoking and Health Action Foundation (SHAF), NSRA/SHAF receives more than $700,000 in government funding every year. Membership revenues, meanwhile, total somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000 annually. The question then becomes: "how can an organization with virtually no representative membership in our country be so well funded by our tax dollars - especially when 6 million Canadian smokers, and tens of thousands of tobacco retailers, distributors, farmers and unions continue to have no voice in government"?
Ironically enough, part of the MAC's mandate is to provide advice on consultation and public engagement activities to ensure that the Tobacco Control Programme of Health Canada has the broadest base of stakeholder involvement possible. So let's see…extremist groups who already have their minds made up and are publicly promoting hate and/or distrust of an industry and anyone connected to this industry are now suppose to advise Health Canada on who should be consulted?
Where there's smoke….
Like kids in a candy store, extremist groups on MAC have been helping themselves to both public agenda and public funding over the last year. In terms of a few examples…
As its first project in July-August 2001, the MAC provided $85,000 in funding to the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) to coordinate the International Expert Panel on Cigarette Descriptors. That the CCS has representatives on the MAC (and its sub-committees) is less of a concern than the fact that, as an external agency the CCS is not bound by the Access to Information Act. In a very real sense, by contracting the CCS, the anti-tobacco lobby stumbled unto a strategic loophole to public accountability and could decide who saw what, when and if ever. Case in point: while MAC had scheduled the publication of these expert panel proceedings for January 2002, the project specifically called for distributing this information through a strategic mailing list. Chances are, if you are reading this article with any amount of disbelief…you should likely not wait by your mailbox.
Briefly side-stepping his role as a MAC member, SHAF/NSRA Executive Director, Mr. Gar Mahood wrote a letter to Mr. Louis Gauvin (MAC Chair) in October of 2001. Stating the international importance of publishing and distributing these proceedings, Mr. Mahood further went on to identify the National Clearinghouse on Tobacco and Health (a program of the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control (CCTC)) as the ideal organization to do this work That this $75,000 contract was subsequently awarded to the CCTC raises concern. For one, Mr. Louis Gauvin was once a member of the Board of the CCTC and is still federally registered as on of its lobbyists.
In terms of his own initiatives, Mr. Gauvin's organization (the Coalition québécoise pour le contrôle du tabac (CQCT)) was recently awarded $250,000 from Health Canada to coordinate the 1st International Francophone Conference on Tobacco Control (scheduled for September 2002, Montreal).
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSFC), for their part, have also raised some flags. As Chair of the MAC sub-committee on Product Modification, PSFC's Neil Collishaw (also a registered lobbyist), advanced a project titled: Towards Tobacco Product Regulation. In a December 21, 2001 email to the department, Mr. Collishaw requested that a contract (subsequently valued at $9,630) be prepared for a Ms. Christy Ferguson. Another internal email from Mr. Collishaw to the department stated that Ms. Ferguson was a former employee of PSFC and that her employment with them came to an end the very same day in which he was requesting that a contract be drawn up for her. Interestingly enough, Mr. Collishaw further accepted "the remainder of the work" to be done via a contract to his own organization (PSFC) "to manage the review process". The $20,000 project (in total) was effectively split into two separately sole-sourced contracts.
As disconcerting as these few examples may be, they are not at all surprising. Canada's extremists groups like the NSRA, PSFC and the CQCT have long pressured Government to embrace and fund their private research and aggressive advocacy agendas on tobacco control. The FTCS and the MAC are both a direct result of years of lobbying by these publicly funded organizations which seem to know what's good for you, even if you don't or don't agree. That they have made the MAC their private playground should have been expected. What the new Minister of Health decides to do about it will largely depend on how much she truly believes in good public policy development and public accountability.