Consumer and Public Education Webinar Summary

Panel:

George Smitherman, CEO Cannabis Council of Canada

Trina Fraser, Brazeau Seller Law

Megan McCrae, Organigram

Jenna Valleriani, Director Social Purpose & Impact, Canopy Growth

Myrna Gillis, CEO, Aqualitas

John McEachern, Senior Director, Aurora Cannabis Inc.

What are some of the public health and safety challenges?

  • illicit products continue to be available sold openly online and when tested, contain harmful pesticides
  • very high percentage of consumers in the dry flowers segment with demands for high THC products
  • barriers to public and consumer education
  • lack of opportunities to drive knowledge and promotion of safe and responsible cannabis consumption by adults
  • drawing more consumers away from the illicit market
  • barriers to the dissemination of public education and product information
  • prohibitionist attitude towards the approach to cannabis education

What does consumer education even mean?

Education, including benefits, studies, and other relevant information. Public safety including a comparison to other products in market regarding risk profile, benefits, and medical vs recreational.

Where do we draw the line between education and promotion?

Consumer education is about giving information so consumers can make informed decisions regarding brands and products, including the brand promise about the product itself, the backstory, grow methods of production, etc.

How does current regulatory framework permit or restrict the ability to convey information and education to consumers?

The goal of education is to help consumers make purchase decisions that meet their desired outcomes and involves cultivars, format, features, benefits, etc. Without being able to speak to outcomes, we can only tell half the story on education.

How good a job is the government doing in educating Canadians?

The government has provided $100M to organizations for public health education so there are lots of great resources and materials. The gap is that daily users will not go looking for harm reduction education and information so spending more time and money on translation and mobilization to bring science to the public in accessible and creative ways will help it to resonate. Talking directly to the consumer is critical to getting this information into hands of parents and others to utilize it. For example, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy created a youth led education program, yet few people have heard of it.

Would there be a benefit to more collaborative efforts between government, advocacy groups and industry?

Many opportunities exist for partnering together. Industry can bring creativity, innovation, and consumer experience knowledge. For example, Humber College is doing education research with a program involving 16 stores.

Is government hitting the right mark between risk and harm reduction?

Still too heavy a focus on risk and harms which needs to be balanced with the benefits, therapeutic utility, and just ways Canadians are using cannabis. We need to communicate more on harm reduction and to those already using cannabis.

Are there different considerations for people making purchasing decisions for using cannabis as medicine?

Cannabis is unique in having two overlapping profiles of consumers in medical and recreational. There are gaps in what the regulator is permitting in messaging regarding the therapeutic benefits, the risks, and informed consent. If negative messages on the recreational side are overplayed, we further stigmatize medical patients who have a very legitimate claim to the benefits associated with the.

How do we talk to those consumers to change their minds about where to purchase cannabis to displace the illicit cannabis market?

We need a new approach for consumers comfortable with the illicit market. What is the argument that will get people to switch from illegal to legal market? Illegal products are not safe. Potency is variable in the illegal market with testing showing people are not getting what they paid for. Illegal cannabis fuels illegal activity. Legal cannabis is now more compelling with increased quality and decreased prices.

How important is brand familiarity, awareness and loyalty in regulated market versus focus on product safety, pesticides, etc.?

Consumer education and brand go together. A brand is not just a logo but rather the promise made to the consumer. If licensed producers can not communicate brand and specific attributes represented, consumers will gravitate to the highest potency product at the cheapest price point. With brand comes brand loyalty and gives consumers a reason to move to the legal market.

Should what we convey to consumers be tailored based on race, gender, and other demographics rather than the homogenous way currently?

There should be different messaging for different ages. We have been lacking lots of culturally sensitive information which has been highlighted by black and indigenous youth during recent dialogue and education roundtables. Information and campaigns need to include people with lived experience from the different consumer segments of the population as well as those who use cannabis and those who don’t. Those who do use cannabis benefit from harm reduction information. Those who don’t use cannabis benefit from demystification of common claims around cannabis.

If people are making decisions not to consume cannabis based upon misconceptions or misinformation, is it important that the industry is able to correct those?

In the same way that racial or minority education has done to view others fairly and with accurate information, we have an obligation to address misconceptions or stigmatization or discrimination that prevent people from making informed decisions about cannabis. Consumption misconceptions perpetuate mis-guided societal impressions contrary even to Health Canada’s website, outlining cannabis as less addictive that alcohol and tobacco and does not have a toxicity level like pharmaceuticals that can kill. There are many purposeful therapeutic use cases for cannabis so putting information out in a fair and balanced way is beneficial for everyone.

What effect on education campaigns will Health Canada’s proposed changes to the scope of permissible testing with research licenses have?

Research licenses limit the sensory aspect so measurements of product impact onset and offset times can not be provided. Some positive changes to testing are in work and we are awaiting clarification on natural health product basic claims involving elements such as terpenes. Science focused on the research and development side have been handcuffed and since the consumer deserves the best information to make the most informed choices, the regulator shouldn’t have an interest in precluding that.

Do the current regulations, prevent the cannabis industry from creating a similar educational infrastructure to that of the pharmaceutical industry where they educate medical professionals to encourage conversation between doctor and patient?

Only thing cannabis industry can do right now is to provide an active list of pharmaceutical ingredients. Not being pharmaceutical companies, we don't have the capacity to be making representations about effects and therapeutics. On the education side, the lens of patient experience could provide representative information without concluding efficacy of the product that drug development would provide. Currently Health Canada refers healthcare practitioners to their monograph on cannabis and prohibits the industry from talking to them.

Is there any guidance document for marketing and branding that can help with the discrepancy between those complying with regulations and those blatantly violating the regulations?

There is a reasonable balance with what's become known as the acceptable and not acceptable, with varying shades of grey in the regulations. The regulations are very prescriptive, yet the regulator can not envision every situation. Sharing illustrative examples would be helpful in making more informed decisions during risk assessment for promotional activities. Other regulators share infractions once a fine is issued so industry can make decisions about risk tolerance and consequences. Health Canada has not yet issued any fines and has focused on compliance letters where the industry is left to infer, based on changed campaigns and strategies, what the regulator must have taken issue with. On an individual basis, nobody wants their business being made public, yet on an aggregate basis we would all like to learn from everyone else's mistakes or experiences to better understand what the tolerance level is.

How big of a problem is counterfeiting of legal labels, brands, and products and how do you help the consumer determine the real from the counterfeit?

As brands continue to build and gain equity, awareness, following and loyalty, you'll probably see more and more illicit market producers trying to copy brands that are succeeding in the marketplace. For consumers, always purchase from a legal source and look for the tax stamp. Education that could be valuable to both consumers and non consumers is about what the regulations are for cannabis legalization in Canada and where you access that in your province. Mostly we are seeing non legal brands using the tax stamp or Health Canada labels. There are so many brands out there it can be hard to distinguish legal from illegal.

What is at least one thing, if that you could change the regulatory framework, that would allow you to communicate with consumers and educate them in a way that you think is more meaningful?

Relax the regulations around packaging and labeling which today make it very difficult to educate consumers. Allow packaging to speak about not only product attributes but also anything that's meaningful for that brand or category such as the backstory, terpene levels, lineage, history of the grower, etc. We need to be getting our products in the hands of budtenders and helping them experience our products so that they can knowledgeably educate consumers. Unlike Ontario, provinces like BC and Alberta have taken on very strict no sampling type positions. We need to communicate more to consumers about felt effects and what to expect. In the absence of this, we do see the proliferation and reliance on peer-to-peer networks. We need to hear from the illicit market about what's restricting them from coming over to the legal market. Embedded messages on the packaging could get a lot of education out there.

How can we help to dispel some of that confusion and educate consumers a little bit better vaping of non cannabis and cannabis products?

There needs to be targeted education around vaping. Media has kind of taken over this issue and has blanketed it in that way where we are losing an important harm reduction tool. 70% of purchasers are buying flower so targeted education is necessary to disentangle how we refer to these different products, including those e-cigarettes and cannabis vape pens issues stemmed from illicit and unregulated products. Dispel the myths around cannabis and encourage pivoting to less harmful inhalation methods. It’s hard to reconcile seeing provinces put a surtax on vaping products rather than smoking a bowl of combustible products while some provinces just refusing to sell vaping products.

Do you see the use of QR codes is helpful for supporting education?

QR codes made a comeback during Covid and is a useful tool. Current research studies that are tracking dissemination and uptake of QR codes may provide some insight. The issue with using QR codes on the packaging of products themselves is the restrictions in the regulations on the use of images yet QR codes can probably be used in the collateral materials at the point of sale.

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George Smitherman

President and CEO

Cannabis Council of Canada

george@cannabis-council.ca