CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 12 . . . . February 17, 2006
Tobacco's Last Stand.
Robin Benger (Director). Peter Starr (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
44 min., 21 secs., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C9104 077.
Tobacco industry-Law and legislation-Canada.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up. Review by Cathy Vincent-Linderoos.
This superb documentary is a hard-hitting, revealing examination of Norfolk County's tobacco farming community as it tries to stand its ground in the face of siege from anti-smoking forces. Norfolk County is located on the north shore of Lake Erie in Southwestern Ontario, Canada.
The film is a study in contrasts. On one side of the story, we watch the Muelemeesters, a hard-working tobacco farm family struggling to hang on to their declining tobacco income. We see an industry supportive mayor, Rita Kalmbach, and the local municipal council briefly debate and defeat a motion which would open the door to a smoke-free bylaw. On the opposite side of the story, we meet Heather Crowe, an Ottawa woman suffering from terminal lung cancer due to second-hand tobacco smoke exposure in her work-place, and Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco (OCAT), actively advocating for a smoke-free Haldimand-Norfolk.
Straddled uncomfortably between these two camps, a young journalist, Trevor Hache, has written an award-winning series of articles about the tobacco industry while in the employ of the tobacco-friendly Simcoe Reformer newspaper. Hache's own mother has emphysema but cannot manage to quit smoking. At one point, he has gone so far as to contact provincial officials to complain about local children being subjected to the danger of second-hand smoke. (Hache's job with the newspaper was short-lived. Apparently he is now associated with the Non-Smokers' Rights Association in Ottawa.)
The film makes numerous references to the influence on the community of the "big tobacco" companies. We are told of their outstanding annual profits and what strategies have permitted such stellar performance in Canada. The public face of the tobacco companies in the film is limited to the agents who are on hand to bid for the tobacco lots at auction and the billowing company signs at the annual tobacco harvest festival. However, their many influences on members of the community are evident in the words and actions of those interviewed and photographed for the film.
The abundance of smoking in public by local people of all ages, including teens, is well-documented on the film. The Haldimand Norfolk health unit website states that "locally, surveys conducted in the Haldimand-Norfolk/Brantford area show that the proportion of daily and occasional smokers 12 and over is higher (28.1%) compared to the rest of the province (24.5%) and Canada (25.9 %)."
The health unit goes on to say that "Smoking is the most preventable cause of death and disability in Canada, yet 45,000 Canadians die from using tobacco products every year. Nearly 12,000 Ontarians become victims of tobacco use, which is four times the number of people dying from car accidents, suicides, murder and AIDS combined. These numbers are equivalent to "one full jumbo jet crashing every 6th day without any survivors" (Tobacco or Health in Ontario, Cancer Care Ontario). This information is made crystal-clear in the video.
Resistance to change runs deep in the community, and the film has definitely captured the sentiment. For example, one woman tells Michael Perley in a public meeting about the need for an anti-smoking bylaw that with the prevalence of mad-cow disease, the outbreak of SARS and presence of West Nile disease, she'll "take her chances with tobacco." Yet we also see that there are high levels of public support for anti-smoking legislation in Norfolk County, just as there is a very high rate of cancer in the area. Conspicuous by their absence on film are local health-care workers and local cancer patients.
Geography, economics, social studies, world issues, civics, English, health and media studies teachers across Canada will find that this film presents a wealth of material for their classes. The liner notes which are enclosed with the video outline many curriculum applications and questions, as well as activities which could be used by community groups as they combat smoking.
Tobacco's Last Stand is an ideal film to use in order to teach students the concepts of opinion, argument, fact and bias. Teachers interested in using the film as a springboard for a geography unit on understanding and managing change will find that the Council for Biotechnological Information has complementary information on its website, including information that outlines emerging pharmaceutical use for tobacco leaves. Another area for further student research is the range of alternate crops that have begun to replace tobacco in southwestern Ontario.
I would note for the record that in August of 2003 (shortly after the film was made) the Haldimand municipality did develop and pass an anti-smoking bylaw.
Cathy Vincent-Linderoos is a retired teacher living in London, ON.
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