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Where there's smoke, there's fire: Danielle Smith and Big Tobacco

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith

The leaders of all Alberta parties but one seem committed to ending smoking by young Albertans. The sole holdout? It's the Wildrose Party, led by former Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith, of course.

This much was reported by the Calgary Herald last Tuesday, although readers are forgiven if they missed it since the story ended up on page 18.

"Only Smith said she wouldn't support the majority of the measures," wrote the Herald's reporter in her coverage of a survey of party leaders by the Campaign for a Smoke-Free Alberta, adding in explanation: "The Wildrose Party has vowed not to raise taxes, including taxes on tobacco products."

Most readers presumably simply assumed that this was just another pre-election pledge not to raise taxes by the right-wing party committed to reviving the low-tax "Alberta Advantage" of Ralph Klein, one of the gods in the Wildrosers' Tea Party pantheon.

So it's unlikely many readers were troubled by the lack of any reference to the cozy relationships among Smith, various far-right Astroturf and propaganda organizations and the tobacco industry.

Nor would many have noticed that the Wildrose Party indicated in its response to the survey that it would not agree to consider taking action on such measures as banning candy-flavoured tobacco, reducing sales to minors or suing tobacco companies to recover health care costs resulting from disease tied to negligence by the industry. If Wildrose MLAs wanted to do something about those things, they could introduce a private-member bill, the party's response said.

Smith has worked for three well-known far-right organizations that have all shilled for the tobacco industry, helping their fight against legislation to control tobacco and smoking: the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute. At least two of them, the Fraser Institute and the CPRRI, received direct funding from the tobacco industry.

Not so surprisingly, then, Smith and the Fraser Institute have both bloviated time and again on the topic of how Canada should eliminate all taxes on tobacco as a way to reduce the illegal trade in contraband cigarettes.

Back in 2003, for example, Smith informed her Calgary Herald column readers that "tobacco companies are not to blame for the trade in contraband cigarettes. Unless governments realize high taxes are the real cause, the smuggling business will thrive." (Emphasis added.) This would be a theme that resonated through the right-wing echo chamber.

Last year, for example, the Fraser Institute argued that Canada should eliminate all taxes on tobacco as a way to reduce the illegal trade in contraband cigarettes. "The imposition of excessively high taxes on tobacco is likely the main factor encouraging the contraband trade. Eliminating taxes on all tobacco products would be expected to significantly reduce the contraband tobacco trade."

Also in 2011, Smith told the Wetaskiwin and District Chamber of Commerce that the seizure by authorities of 75,000 cartons of cigarettes on the Montana First Nation in the nearby Hobbema was the result of "overtaxing by the provincial government," in the words of a March 23, 2011, Wetaskiwin Times story that is not longer available on line.

And so it goes. Back on Dec. 2, 2002, Smith used her Herald column to argue against regulation of second-hand smoke. On May 25, 2003, she marked the death of anti-tobacco activist Barb Tarbox by quoting a tobacco-industry-funded researcher to argue that second-hand smoke poses no risk. She went on, and I'm not making this up, "the evidence shows moderate cigarette consumption can reduce traditional risks of disease by 75 per cent or more." (Yes, you need to read that twice. No idea what a traditional risk is. Obviously it's not just climate change!)

On June 1, 2007, as Director of Provincial Affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, an Astroturf group that purports to represent the interests of independent businesses while working against them, Smith wrote then Health and Wellness Minister Dave Hancock to argue against the then-proposed restrictions on the retail display of tobacco products.

"We are unaware of any research that shows that eliminating these retail displays will have any impact on the decision whether to smoke or not," she told Hancock, complaining that while placing screens over tobacco products would have no impact on sales, they would be "a significant financial hardship" for business anyway because of the cost of the screens.

Instead of allowing tobacco companies to advertise to impressionable young people through colourful displays, she suggested that "the government should be more aggressive in prosecuting the underage possession of cigarettes."So here we had this great foe of tax increases suggesting that the taxpayer fund expensive prosecutions to save retailers the cost of the equivalent of a window blind. Did I get that right?

Can we conclude from this that a Wildrose government would eliminate those restrictions, now in place? Would it roll back tobacco taxes?

And would Smith argue that her beloved "property rights" do not allow non-smokers to be protected from second-hand smoke? After all, the CPRRI, for which she once worked, has argued at another time in the past that municipal politicians need to be informed about "the grave consequences for private property rights entailed in banning smoking in all indoor, publicly accessible places."

Whatever happens, it's a safe bet we won't be seeing anything more that the tobacco industry doesn't want during the life of any government presided over by Smith.

This post also appears on david Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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