Maclean’s - August 24, 1998
When the House of Commons returns to work next month, MPs will find a present on their Order Paper. It is Bill S-13, which was passed by the upper house on June 10, and now enjoys the rare distinction of being a Senate private member's bill that actually has a fighting chance of becoming law. Introduced, promoted and stage-managed by Ontario Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, S-13 is an anti-smoking bill aimed at reducing tobacco use through massive public-education campaigns to discourage kids from starting to smoke by persuading them smoking is uncool. It would create a youth education fund wholly (albeit involuntarily) financed by the tobacco industry to the tune of $120 million a year through a new federal levy that would add 50 cents to the price of every carton of cigarettes sold in Canada. (At present, Ottawa collects $2 billion annually in tobacco taxes, but spends just $20 million on programs to discourage smoking.)
S-13 would raise Canadian spending on education and prevention to the same level as in California, a state with about the same population as Canada. There, the adult smoking rate has dropped by 42 per cent since the inception of vigorous anti-smoking campaigns authorized under Proposition 99 in 1988. Eleven per cent of Californians aged 15 to 19 are smokers -- compared with almost 30 per cent of Canadians in the same age bracket.
Smoking-related diseases kill 40,000 Canadians every year, which is almost as many as died during the entire Second World War. Kenny offers a striking "what if": "If two 747 aircraft were to crash in Canada every week for a year, that would be 40,000 deaths. After the first three or four crashes, there would be a national inquiry. If it continued, the government would be thrown out of office." But neither the public nor the government gets outraged by 40,000 smoking deaths.
What, realistically, are his chances of getting the Commons to approve S-13? There are three obstacles. The first is a potential procedural challenge on the grounds that the Senate cannot, constitutionally, propose tax measures; Kenny got around that in the Senate by calling his financing device a "levy" rather than a "tax." Second, the Commons subcommittee on private members' business must agree to accept S-13 as a "votable" bill -- that is, a measure to be given full debate and brought to a vote, rather than be talked out as most private members' measures are. The third obstacle, says Kenny, is Paul Martin. As keeper of the tax system and as the senior minister from Quebec, where the tobacco lobby is strongest, the finance minister has the power to stop S-13 in its tracks. But the fact that Martin has been content so far to sit back and watch the bill's progress leads Kenny to hope that he will back it.
While he waits for the Commons to return, Kenny is travelling the country, networking, building alliances, lining up nearly 200 organizations from coast to coast behind S-13, and organizing voters in all 301 federal constituencies to write their MPs in support of his bill. This sort of lobbying is second nature to Kenny. Now 54, he's been working the corridors of power ever since he was 25, when Pierre Trudeau brought him to Ottawa to run the Ontario desk in the Prime Minister's Office. If he can't make it happen, who can?