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The second-hand effects of curbing sales of flavoured tobacco

What Bill 33 means in Alberta

Mar 24, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

It wasn’t long ago that Alberta was still lighting up while other provinces were butting out. Now the province is taking the lead in smoking bans, but not everyone is excited to exhale. At issue is smoke – but not from tobacco. Instead, this smoke comes from hookah, shisha, narghile or qalyan, all names for the ancient Middle Eastern practice of smoking from a waterpipe. In November, the Alberta government introduced Bill 33, which seeks to mend several perceived loopholes in its 2008 province-wide tobacco-smoking ban. The new law proposes a prohibition on smoking ‘tobacco-like’ products in public spaces. And that’s code for hookah.

The number of hookah-smoking establishments has billowed upwards in Alberta in recent years, say anti-smoking advocates (with one possible reason being that the number of immigrants arriving here from Africa and the Middle East has increased by 34 per cent between 1999 and 2008), and that’s led to concerns about its potential links to youth smoking rates. But some owners of these businesses, which (surprise!) tend to be owned by people from Middle Eastern cultures, have cried foul over Bill 33, saying it’s a culturally-specific ban on a practice that doesn’t even use tobacco (indeed, to avoid tobacco laws, restaurants only allow patrons to smoke flavoured herbs). One Lebanese restaurant owner in Calgary, for instance, told the Calgary Herald that 40 per cent of his revenues are now linked to hookah.

To this point, those supporting the new ban say potential losses for Alberta businesses are outweighed by savings to public health. “From our perspective, the proliferation of hookah establishments was undermining the ban on smoking and on second-hand smoke in public establishments,” says Les Hagen, executive director with Action on Smoking and Health. Hookah may have origins in one culture, Hagen says, “but it’s quickly taking hold in popular culture, particularly among young people.”

And therein lies the rub. The more successful hookah entrepreneurs are at expanding beyond the ‘ethnic’ market, the more they’ve invited in mainstream expectations around public smoke. But are their concerns over their potential business losses valid? Hagen says no, pointing to the dearth of evidence that tobacco-smoke bans harmed Alberta’s $6 billion hospitality industry. And he may just be on to something: research from Ontario suggests that its 2006 smoking ban didn’t hurt its hospitality industry, either, and in some cases, even “had a positive impact.”

What Bill 33 Butts Out

If you’re underage and trying to smoke, Bill 33 is trying to cramp your style

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What Does A Pack Of Smokes Cost?

In Canada, the vast majority of the price of a pack of cigarettes is tax. Federal excise tax on a carton of cigarettes (200 cigarettes) is set at $17, while the provinces set their own excise taxes. Factor in provincial sales taxes (if any), and harmonized taxes, and you get the final price per package. In Alberta, cigarette taxes were last increased in 2002, by $2.25 per package.

The Campaign for a Smoke Free Alberta argues that this increase has led to a 24 per cent decline in tobacco sales. In 2011, the group demanded taxes be raised again, by $2.00. Why? “Youth smoking rates remain disturbingly high and Alberta is not meeting its youth reduction targets,” said Leigh Allard, president of the Lung Association of Alberta & NWT.

Price per Pack

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Some Smoking Deals
Average price of one carton of 10 packages of cigarette More than $100
Price at Cheap Smokes & Tobacco, in Olds (population 8,500) $88.50
Sales, per month, at Cheap Smokes & Tobacco $140,000
Costs Meet Rewards

Albertans are smoking far less than they did a generation ago.

In 1980, 7.2 billion cigarettes were sold in the province; by 2011, they were at only 4.3 billion, a 45 per cent decrease (and, over the same period, Alberta’s population grew by 71 per cent). Still, the province lags behind on its own goals on smoking. Its target smoking rate for youth ages 12 to 19 is 10 per cent. The actual rate is 14 per cent.

Regardless, the cost to public coffers from tobacco-related health care demands has been falling, thanks to increases in tobacco taxes, which have cut smoking rates while increasing revenues. Alberta’s yearly revenues from tobacco are now higher than its (granted, roughly estimated) yearly tobacco-related healthcare costs.

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