06/12/2018 16:10 EDT | Updated 06/12/2018 16:33 EDT

Close Cannabis 'Swag' Loophole To Keep Weed Brand Logos Out Of Sight

An exception in the Cannabis Act would allow marijuana brands to sell T-shirts, hats, iPhone cases and more displaying their logos.

When members of Parliament vote on the Senate's revised Cannabis Act in the House of Commons this week, they will consider more than 40 amendments to the government's proposal to legalize recreational marijuana.

While most of the changes are technical fixes to a hastily written piece of legislation, senators have proposed a number of substantive improvements to align the bill with the spirit of the law. The Senate's amendment to ban backdoor branding is an easy fix to better protect kids and adult consumers alike, which the government would be wise to accept.

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Earlier this month, senators voted across party lines to close a loophole that gives cannabis companies a back door to advertise marijuana. While the legislation generally prohibits marketing, it contained an exception that would have allowed cannabis manufacturers to produce T-shirts, hats, iPhone cases and other products displaying their brand logos. This practice is known as brand-stretching or backdoor branding, and is clearly at odds with the government's stated goal of protecting public health.

Without a ban, clothing and other promotional items emblazoned with cannabis company logos will be seen by young people, and they will send the message that marijuana is free of risks. Cracking down on forms of cannabis advertising that can be seen by young people will be critical if the government is serious about meeting its objective of eliminating marijuana use among young people — Health Canada's 2016-17 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey released this week found that young peoples' overall perception of the risks of smoking cannabis has decreased since the government announced its plans for legalization.

We would do well to remember our decades-long fight with Big Tobacco to get Joe Camel and other cigarette logos out of sight.

So-called "cannabis swag" is a form of advertising, plain and simple, which Bill C-45 purports to ban. In testimony before the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, the Non-Smokers Rights Association explained that when other forms of marketing are restricted, companies will inevitably spend their advertising dollars on these products. We know this because it happened with tobacco, and it's already happening with cannabis.

Since the Senate passed the amendment, it's no surprise that the cannabis industry has voiced their opposition, but they are crying wolf. Companies can differentiate their products through branded packaging, branded cannabis accessories, and in-store informational product displays. Highly regulated distribution through select retailers gives these companies a captive market, and they don't need any help from "backdoor branding" to sell more marijuana.

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A cap sporting the logo of tobacco company Marlboro.

This week, former chair of the federal cannabis task force Anne McLellan warned the industry to play by the rules when recreational marijuana is legalized, saying that "[w]e've seen this too often with big tobacco and big pharma." There is no reason to expect the new cannabis industry to be any different. A comprehensive ban on cannabis swag will be much easier to enforce than vague and subjective requirements about whether or not a product is appealing to children or promotes a glamourous lifestyle.

We would do well to remember our decades-long fight with Big Tobacco to get Joe Camel and other cigarette logos out of sight. Over 70 countries have outlawed brand-stretching for tobacco, in accordance with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which Canada is a party. The practice is effectively banned in Canada by a patchwork of provincial restrictions, but these victories for public health were hard-won.

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We have a golden opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Legalization offers a blank canvas, and lobbying from the cannabis industry is only getting stronger. Producers have not been shy about their plans to creatively exploit the advertising restrictions in the bill. Five public health organizations in Canada, including the chief medical officers of health, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health all recommend a complete ban on cannabis advertising. Banning backdoor branding is the best interest of public health.

When MPs vote on Bill C-45 again in the House of Commons, they should accept the Senate's amendments, including the ban on backdoor branding. When a majority of senators identify a loophole that contradicts the purpose of legislation, the Senate is serving its purpose as a chamber of sober second thought. If the Liberals' motivation for legalizing marijuana is truly about public health as opposed to profit, they will accept the Senate's amendment to close the backdoor branding loophole.

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