10/20/2014 06:00 EDT | Updated 12/20/2014 05:59 EST

Menthol Tobacco Ban For Alberta Still Undecided

Joe Raedle via Getty Images
MIAMI - MARCH 30: Brenda Wisehart smokes a menthol cigarette in front of a Quick Stop store on March 30, 2010 in Miami, Florida. Today in Washington, DC a public hearing began before a committee of outside experts that advises the Food and Drug Administration as they weigh the evidence of menthol's impact on smokers' use and health. The FDA could eventually ban or phase out the menthol cigarettes that some experts say can be more enticing and possibly addicting than regular cigarettes. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

EDMONTON - Health advocates fear part of Alberta's flavoured tobacco legislation that would ban menthol may go up in smoke.

Cathy Gladwin asked Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Premier Jim Prentice about the law last week when they knocked on her door while they were campaigning in Edmonton, where Mandel hopes to win a seat in a byelection.

Gladwin, who is on the board of the Alberta Public Health Association, said she asked them not to exempt menthol from the legislation, which was passed last fall, but has not yet been put into effect.

She said Mandel told her that banning menthol is a difficult challenge. He would not give her any assurances, she said.

"It sounds like it is a no-go on menthol," she said in an interview. "That was definitely my impression, that they were going to let menthol be exempt.

"I did say to them, 'If you don't include menthol, it won't prevent youth from taking up smoking.'"

Bill 206 calls for banning flavoured tobacco products, but doesn't specifically mention menthol or any other flavour.

The legislation is aimed at restricting the sale of tobacco products that are designed to attract young people. But the law gives the government the authority to apply the ban to everyone.

Mandel said the government is wrestling with what to do about menthol as it develops regulations that will flesh out the law.

When asked in an interview if the province remains committed to a ban on menthol, including cigarettes, Mandel said he couldn't give a definitive answer.

"I don't want to answer yes or no to things that are still up in the air," he told The Canadian Press. "Menthol is the one that is still up in the air."

Mandel said there is some concern the province could face a legal challenge, but there have been no threats of a lawsuit.

He suggested some people in the government are worried about public support for a ban even though the legislation passed with almost unanimous support.

"There are differing opinions as to what the impact of it could be on individuals and individual rights, things like that," he said.

Is the concern because a ban would also apply to adults?

"I am not at this point in time going to comment on that, but I think if you ban, you ban, don't you?"

Mandel said the government would indicate where it stands on menthol before the end of the year.

Health groups across the country have been holding Alberta up as an example that other governments should follow when it comes to flavoured tobacco legislation.

On Sept. 30, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Lung Association urged all health ministers to join Alberta in banning flavoured tobacco products.

They cited surveys that suggest that menthol is the most popular flavoured tobacco product among youths and that one in three young people who smoke prefer menthol cigarettes.

The cancer society said any legitimate ban on flavoured tobacco must include menthol.

Alberta isn't the only government that has grappled with what to do about the minty tobacco flavour.

The federal government exempted menthol from its flavoured tobacco ban legislation in 2009.

Ontario introduced a bill to restrict access to flavoured tobacco, but exempted menthol. The proposed legislation died in June when a provincial election was called.

The Ontario Medical Association is urging Premier Kathleen Wynne's government to reintroduce the bill and to include a ban on menthol cigarettes.

The association said underage smokers who use menthol cigarettes smoke more often and are more likely to continue later in life.

Alberta's uncertainty about menthol has anti-smoking advocates fuming.

Les Hagen of Action on Smoking and Health said the province has been heavily lobbied by the tobacco industry about its legislation.

He said the industry will lose money if there is a menthol ban in Alberta and the idea takes hold in other provinces.

"We are hoping the Alberta government will step in and ensure that this legislation meets its full potential," Hagen said.

"If there is a menthol exemption or any other significant exemption — that will undermine the integrity of the bill itself and it will severely undermine the health of Alberta youth."

Mandel, who was appointed health minister one month ago, said he hasn't met with tobacco industry representatives and doesn't plan to.

He said the government is well aware of the industry's position.