Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

Health Canada's cannabis warning messages draw skepticism

The sample cannabis packaging designed and released by Health Canada in 2018. (Health Canada)

The sample cannabis packaging designed and released by Health Canada in 2018. (Health Canada)

Does selling cannabis in packages with prominent health warnings actually change peoples' perceptions of whether or not the product is safe? Research commissioned by Health Canada suggests that might not be the case, at least not for the people who are more likely to use cannabis.

In 2018, the federal cannabis regulator paid consulting firm Earnscliffe more than $113,000 to test its proposed cannabis packaging and health labels on different groups of Canadians across the country. The final report from those qualitative research sessions is now available online.

The consultants showed participants Health Canada's mock-up cannabis packaging (seen above) along with a list of various government-mandated health warning messages, then asked them to share their perceptions.

"Overall reaction to the health warning messages was mixed," says the report, which found participants' reactions to the warnings tended to align with what they already believed about cannabis.

Those who came into the sessions with negative views of cannabis were receptive to most/all warnings, says the report.

But those who were more comfortable with the drug (presumably, the same group of people most likely to use it and, therefore, the most important group to reach with health warnings) were more skeptical about how certain government warning messages presented information.

"Those comfortable with cannabis claimed to be more open to messaging that took the approach of 'enjoy responsibly' rather than simply 'beware!'," Earnscliffe wrote.

The report recommends Health Canada try using that kind of "enjoy responsibly" phrasing in its warning messaging. For example, the message, "Harmful chemicals found in tobacco smoke are also found in cannabis smoke," might instead be reimagined as something such as, "If you are intending to use cannabis, be aware that the different ways of taking the drug have different health risks."

A number of people in the focus groups questioned whether certain warning statements are even true at all. The warning message claiming, "Up to one in two people who use cannabis daily will become addicted," was rejected by some participants across all age groups, especially young adults.

"(Proving) that cannabis is addictive would go a long way to improving the effectiveness of messages about addiction; repeated warning messages to this effect do not seem to be moving the needle in terms of acceptance of this as fact," recommends the report.

Overall, Earnscliffe found respondents who were already familiar with cannabis "sought clearer evidence of harms or risks in the statements to improve their credibility — simply stating facts (statistics) was not all that persuasive or credible."

Only three of the messages shown to participants were widely accepted regardless of age or familiarity with cannabis: Those warning against using cannabis while pregnant; warning against driving under the influence; and those warning that adolescents risk greater harm from using cannabis."

It doesn't appear that the consultant's recommendations have resulted to any changes to the warning labels on cannabis packaging in Canada: the current list of approved health warning messages for cannabis includes warnings identical to the ones Earnscliffe tested on Canadians. (It's also worth noting that the final report, with all its recommendations for improving the warning messages, was only delivered on Oct. 9, 2018 — mere days before legalization.)

Earnscliffe found the bright yellow warning messages were the most attention-grabbing element of the package, even more than the warning to keep it away from kids or the bright red "THC" stop-sign logo.

If the health warning messages are the most interesting aspect of Canada's cannabis packages — but many of those messages are treated with doubt by the Canadians who are most likely to actually read them — that suggests there's plenty of room for Health Canada to make its cannabis warning messages more effective.


New on The Leaf

  • Two legal cannabis dispensaries are now open in Vancouver, and Ontario is holding a lottery for 25 licences this week. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

    Two legal cannabis dispensaries are now open in Vancouver, and Ontario is holding a lottery for 25 licences this week. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

    A new drug in the Mart: Pharmacy giant Shoppers Drug Mart has launched its online medical cannabis sales portal.
  • Playing the lottery: Ontario's first 25 licensed cannabis stores will be determined by a high-stakes lottery that opened this week. Winners should be announced on Friday.
  • Legal weed stores open in Vancouver: The city is no stranger to cannabis outlets, but the two that opened this past weekend are licensed by the provincial government.

Elsewhere on the Weed Wide Web

  • Not grrreat! Police are looking for a man who tried shipping cannabis abroad in cereal boxes. (Bloomberg files)

    Not grrreat! Police are looking for a man who tried shipping cannabis abroad in cereal boxes. (Bloomberg files)

    Toronto's unlicensed cannabis stores still thriving: City officials are finding it tough to shut them down, reports CBC News.
  • For the longest time: Cannabis production shortages in Canada could stick around for up to three years, weed executive Chuck Rifici tells Bloomberg.
  • A Surprise in Every Box: A man in Guelph, Ont. allegedly tried to ship more than 1,000 grams of marijuana abroad by packing it in cereal boxes.

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