Smokers’ Helpline sees surge in calls after toll-free number included on cigarette packaging

09 February 2016

Toronto -

A study supported by the Canadian Cancer Society has found a major jump in calls to a Smokers’ Helpline after its telephone number was included on all packaging for cigarettes, as a result of a federal regulation from Health Canada.

The study began in March 2012 when the new national regulation regarding cigarette package warnings came into effect. This regulation included enlarging pictorial health warnings from 50% to 75% of the package, as well as including a toll-free quitline telephone number and website address. Smokers’ Helpline provides support, tips, and strategies for quitting smoking and tobacco use, as well as information and assistance to smokers, former smokers, and their families and friends.

In the first 7 months of the study of Ontario’s Smokers’ Helpline there was a 160% increase in the number of calls to the quitline and a sustained increase of 80% in the months following the implementation of the regulation. New callers receiving treatment after calling the quitline also increased by 174%. Calls to Ontario’s Smokers’ Helpline, operated by the Canadian Cancer Society, were measured through to December 2013.

“Studies show that a large number of smokers not only have inadequate knowledge of the health effects of smoking, but are not aware of the free and effective population-based cessation services such as quitlines,” says Dr Bruce Baskerville, who led the study at Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo. “This study has provided the evidence that advertising quitline numbers on packages leads to smokers taking action to stop smoking, thereby cutting their risk of cancer.”

Results from this study also affirm how important cigarette packaging can be in communicating with smokers.

“The large increase in calls to the quitline reinforces the importance of the 2012 expansion of the health warning size to 75% of the package, front and back,” says Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst, Canadian Cancer Society. “The extra space allows for the quitline number and website to be included.”

These findings also support the implementation of plain packaging in Canada, where health warnings and pictures would appear on plain packages together with a standard colour for the branded section, such as the brown required in Australia. Package dimensions would be standardized, thus eliminating slim and superslim packs targeting women.

“Colourful, attractive brand portions of the package should not be able to distract from the health warning and quitline number that discourage tobacco,” says Cunningham. “We applaud the federal government’s commitment to require tobacco plain packaging in Canada.”

So far, plain packaging has been adopted for implementation in Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, and Canada’s federal government has committed to implement plain packaging.

“Modifiable risk factors like smoking account for over half of all cancer deaths,” says Dr. Stephen Robbins, scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Institute for Cancer Research. “Increasing the size of health warnings and adding the quitline telephone number to cigarette packaging has the potential to decrease the cancer burden in this country and save lives.”

“Impact of Canadian tobacco packaging policy on use of toll-free quit-smoking line: an interrupted time series analysis” was funded by the CIHR. The study was published in CMAJ Open, the online journal from the Canadian Medical Association Journal and can be found here.

Founded by the Canadian Cancer Society and University of Waterloo, the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact is a pan-Canadian platform for engaged scholarship to prevent cancers, other chronic disease and their behavioural and environmental causes. Propel leads and catalyzes relevant and rigorous studies, and moves evidence into action.

About Smokers’ Helpline

Smokers’ Helpline is a free service that provides non-judgmental personalized support, tips, and strategies for quitting smoking and tobacco use. Smokers’ Helpline offers assistance and information to smokers, former smokers, and their friends and family by telephone and online. In Ontario service is also offered by text messaging. The Canadian Cancer Society provides quitline services under the Smokers’ Helpline brand in 5 provinces (Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and PEI) and one territory (Yukon). To learn more call the phone number on cigarette packages (1-866-366-3667) or visit SmokersHelpline.ca.

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national, community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is to eradicate cancer and enhance the quality of life of people living with cancer. Thanks to our donors and volunteers, the Society has the most impact, against the most cancers, in the most communities in Canada. For more information, visit cancer.ca or call our toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

For more information, please contact:

Brooke Kelly

Communications Coordinator

Canadian Cancer Society

National office

Phone: 416-934-5321