In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks encounters a series of beds. One is too soft. One is too hard. Only the third is just right. In some respects, the regulation of tobacco product advertising in Canada has mirrored Goldilocks' experiences and Bill ‎S-5 may be the next chapter in the regulation story. It is a Bill of the Senate of Canada intended to amend the Tobacco Act[1] in order for the Tobacco Act to regulate, in addition to cigarettes and other tobacco products, the manufacture, sale, labelling and promotion of vaping products.

The government has acknowledged that vaping products are less harmful than traditional cigarettes[2] and can play an important role in the government’s objective of achieving harm reduction[3]. Given that acknowledgement, Bill S-5 contains a curious provision prohibiting “comparative promotion” of less hazardous products that conveys to the public that the products are less hazardous than say cigarettes[4]. If Bill S-5 is adopted as is, and the curious provision becomes law, its constitutional validity may be questioned for being an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms[5].

The “Comparative Prohibition” may also contravene section 7 of the Charter[6] which prohibits laws that are arbitrary, overbroad or grossly disproportionate in their effect on health. As a result, one would expect a constitutional challenge to Bill S-5 and, perhaps, another decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) on tobacco legislation[7].

Industry Codes: Bed is too soft

There has been advertising of tobacco products in Canada for more than 100 years. Until the 1960s, such advertising was subject only to the same rules applicable to all other product advertising. From 1964 to 1988, tobacco product advertising was also subject to Industry Advertising Codes[8]. These codes became more restrictive over time as they were reviewed and negotiated with the federal government. The government's position was if its desired changes to the codes were not adopted voluntarily, then the government would impose the changes through legislation[9]. In the late 1980s the federal government decided that voluntary restrictions on tobacco product advertising were insufficient or too soft and what was needed was legislative restrictions.

TPCA: Bed is too hard

In 1988, the federal government enacted the Tobacco Products Control Act[10] (“TPCA”) which, among other things, prohibited all forms of tobacco product advertising[11]. Tobacco manufacturers challenged the constitutional validity of the TPCA on the basis, among others, that the ban contravened section 2(b) of the Charter (the freedom of expression).

After six years of litigation, the SCC struck down the total advertising ban for violating the Charter[12]. The Court concluded that commercial expression, even tobacco advertising, was protected by the Charter[13] and that the TPCA's total ban was unconstitutional because it was not a reasonable restriction on the freedom of expression[14]. The Court held that a total ban went too far or, continuing the three bears analogy, ‎was too hard. While provisions prohibiting lifestyle advertising or advertising to youth would be justifiable, the Court held that a total ban on advertising to adults was not[15]. The Court essentially saw no legal justification for prohibiting purely informational advertising to adults that one product is less harmful than another[16].

Tobacco Act: Bed is just right

Within two years of the SCC’s decision on the TPCA, the federal government enacted the Tobacco Act[17] which purported to follow the direction provided by the SCC. The Tobacco Act specifically permitted information advertising[18] and brand preference advertising[19] as long as it was restricted to adult venues and publications.[20] Even for such permitted advertising, the Tobacco Act prohibited lifestyle advertising[21] and advertising appealing to young persons.[22]

On its face, the Tobacco Act permitted advertising to the effect that one tobacco product is less harmful than another[23]. Tobacco manufacturers alleged, however, that the prohibitions on lifestyle advertising and advertising appealing to young persons were so broadly worded that, when coupled with the severe penalties for violating the Tobacco Act, they effectively re-imposed a total ban on advertising[24]. After eight years of litigation, the SCC held that the Tobacco Act again contravened the freedom of expression, only this time in a reasonable way[25] or in a way that was 'just right'. The Court held that the lifestyle and youth prohibitions should be interpreted in a way that did not preclude information or brand preference advertising as long as that advertising was in permitted places and, as also prohibited by the Tobacco Act, not false, misleading or deceptive or likely to create an erroneous impression about the characteristics, health effects or health hazards of the tobacco product or its emissions. [26]

After the SCC's decision on the Tobacco Act, limited permitted tobacco product advertising resumed.

Bill S-5: Too hard again

Bill S-5 proposes many provisions pertaining to the regulation of tobacco and vaping products[27]. This note deals only with the “Comparative Prohibition”. It is described herein as ‘curious’ because, as noted above, the government has recognized that vaping products are less hazardous than cigarettes and can play an important role in harm reduction[28]. In addition, some tobacco control advocates maintain that vaping products have already led to a decrease in the incidence of cigarette smoking[29], while others recognize that there may be a spectrum of new products less hazardous than cigarettes and that cigarette smokers should be educated and encouraged to choose less harmful alternatives[30]. If newer products are less hazardous than traditional cigarettes, then one might assume that the federal government would be in favour of cigarette smokers’ switching to a less harmful alternative. Prohibiting manufacturers from informing smokers that these newer products are less hazardous, however, would likely lead to less smokers making the switch. It is the inclusion of the “Comparative Prohibition”, in addition to other clauses, which may make Bill S-5 “too hard” and violate the Charter.

What's next?

Bill S-5 was recently considered by a Senate Committee which proposed a change to the “Comparative Prohibition”[31].

If Bill S-5 is adopted as is, there will likely be another challenge to a restriction on tobacco product advertising. The courts will again have to assess whether the restriction infringes the Charter and, if so, then the onus will be on the government to justify the restriction as a reasonable one. The government recognizes that the validity of Bill S-5 may well depend on whether a court finds that its limits on constitutionally protected freedoms are appropriate given the reduced risks of vaping[32] (and presumably other new) products. In addition, in assessing the validity of the “Comparative Prohibition” in particular, a court will have to consider that, to comply with the Tobacco Act, advertising that one product is less hazardous than another can take place only if:

  • the advertising is not only true but also not misleading or deceptive or […] likely to create an erroneous impression about the health effects or health hazards of the tobacco product; and
  • the advertising occurs in permitted adult communications or venues.

A court may also have to consider whether prohibiting “comparative promotion” jeopardizes smokers’ health and thus violates section 7 of the Charter. In a 2011 case, the SCC held that section 7 was violated by a decision to deny drug users access to ‎information and services that would lessen the impact of their drug use[33]. The Court noted that the objective of the applicable legislation was to protect health and that, based on the evidence, the decision to effectively ban the services and information would have the opposite effect.[34] This same reasoning may well apply to the inclusion of the “Comparative Prohibition” in Bill S-5, which would deny smokers information regarding less hazardous products.