CANADA has a reputation as one of the toughest antismoking nations on earth. But Kent Anoni couldn't care less.
Leaning back in his seat in the fast-food gallery of a downtown Toronto mall, smoke curling from a cigarette in his left hand, Mr. Anoni struggles to articulate why he began smoking illegally at age 16.
"All of my friends were smoking," says the teenager finally, flicking ash to the floor. "I hated smoking then. But all of my friends recommended it. Everybody's trying to get everyone to smoke."
Mr. Anoni pauses, then sheepishly recalls the particular reason he started: "It looked cool."
Anoni's case illustrates a disturbing trend: a sharp jump in teen smoking in Canada - from 23 to 27 percent of 15- to19-year-olds since 1991 - a phenomenon similar to what is happening in the United States.
Canadian health authorities found themselves last week taking notes on President Clinton's plan to have the Food and Drug Administration take control of tobacco as an addictive drug (because it contains nicotine), and to clamp down on teen smoking in the US.
"His [Clinton's] moves to consider tobacco a drug and to eliminate cigarette-company promotion and sponsorship of sporting and cultural events are quite innovative," says Bill Maga, a senior policy analyst at Health Canada, the federal ministry overseeing the national health policy.
A loophole in the Canadian ban on cigarette advertising currently permits cigarette manufacturers to create corporations with the same names as the brands they are trying to promote. Those companies then promote sporting and other events, such as the Players Ltd. racing events and the DuMaurier Arts Foundation.
"Kids are well aware of the connection between these events and the cigarettes," Mr. Maga says.
Despite that loophole, the Great White North is still well ahead of the US in implementing tough antismoking measures, authorities in both countries say. Most of what Mr. Clinton announced produced yawns in Canada.
Serious warning labels
Along with a total ban on cigarette advertising since 1989, Canadian cigarette packs carry much larger and tougher warning labels: "Cigarettes Can Kill You." Canada's tax rates per pack are also on average far higher than the US - 64 percent compared with 29 percent in the US. The effect on youths of higher prices works powerfully against smoking, activists say.
"Steep taxes that make a pack of cigarettes expensive are the most effective measures in keeping teens from smoking," says Heather Selinof Canada's Non-Smokers' Rights Association in Ottawa. "Without higher taxes, prices, all other efforts are a lot less effective."
Canadian law requires cigarette manufacturers to list on packs nicotine and other chemical content by percent. And legislation to force manufacturers to put cigarettes in plain packages is being debated in Parliament.
The federal government is spending more than $80 million over the next three years on antismoking public education.
"All these measures go well beyond what the US has done," says John Bloom, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society in Washington. "I think the US is headed in the right direction. But Canada is clearly setting the standard for what can be done in tobacco control."
All this effort has paid off. Canadian smoking rates that were much higher than US rates in the 1950s have fallen faster and farther than rates in the US since the antismoking measures were adopted in the 1980s. In 1988, Canada's per capita daily cigarette consumption dropped below the US and has stayed lower.
"Canada was a latecomer to tobacco control," says Mr. Bloom. "They only started in the '80s and managed to catch up to the US in a very short amount of time. Canada has been much more aggressive than the US in treating tobacco use as an epidemic. Even Clinton's initiative has not kept pace with Canada in terms of protecting young people."
But if tough measures have reaped health and other rewards, Canadian antismoking activists are concerned that the 1990s will see a reversal of the decade-long government-policy attack on cigarettes.
A shocking move
In early 1994, Prime Minister Jean Chretien shocked antitobacco forces by drastically lowering federal cigarette taxes in a bid to reduce the profit incentive in the rampant smuggling of tax-free cigarettes from the US across the border into Quebec. Antismoking activists blame the tax decrease and the smuggling of cheap cigarettes for the rising rate of smoking among teens.
That's bunk, tobacco industry officials say. There is no correlation, they contend, between higher taxes and less smoking. They also say that in Canada there is certainly no need to redefine tobacco as a drug - or to eliminate sponsorship of sporting events.
"Sports sponsorship is aimed at promoting a corporate identity," says Marie-Josee LaPointe, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council. "It's not a factor in why kids chose to smoke. Nobody starts smoking because they go to a golf tournament."
Young Canadian smokers, however, say that while sporting events may be entertaining, price is the biggest factor in how much they smoke.
If Ottawa and the US president really want to reverse the upward swing of youth smoking, some suggest that jacking up taxes to make a pack of cigarettes prohibitively expensive for teens would be the place to start.
"For me it's a like a hobby, I guess," Anoni says.
"If the cost was higher, I'm not sure I would be able to afford it."