Reporter's notebook from Fort McMurray:

Posted: Monday, March 01, 2004

Before starting today's Reporter's Notebook, I probably should take a moment for the legal disclaimer. In an effort to avoid an international incident ala late night talk show host Conan O'Brien, let me just say, I am not making fun of Canada, Canadians or unfamiliar cultures. Rather, these observations on life in Alberta are an attempt to educate Kenai Peninsula readers about the cultural differences between the two regions and poke fun at my own lack of knowledge, as well as the many moments I have found myself feeling like an idiot.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

At the risk of drawing disdain from our more healthy readers, I will admit I went to a gas (petrol) station Saturday night to buy a pack of cigarettes. The lesson: Canada clearly does not have the thriving and powerful tobacco industry found in the United States.

First of all, I couldn't find any American cigarette brands and therefore was forced to buy what I can only assume is either a Canadian or French brand (it's hard to tell, as French appears on all products here). I was surprised to find that the packs include 25 cigarettes, rather than the standard 20, but that the individual sticks are about three-quarters the size of the ones I'm used to buying.

Even more surprising, though, was the moment that the cashier asked me to pay for the pack. I've adjusted to the ever-increasing price of tobacco at home and even accepted the rising taxes on the vice. Still, I couldn't contain my shock as I handed over $11 for a single pack of cigarettes rather than the $4 I pay in Kenai.

The most tell-tale sign of Canada's attitude toward the unhealthy habit of smoking came as I examined the unfamiliar packaging of the cigarettes. Yes, in the United States, cigarettes are labeled with the surgeon general's warning: "Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health."

Canada's warnings make this disclaimer look like the understatement of the year. At least half of each pack is covered with a full-color public service announcement, complete with pictures. The pack I bought features a pregnant woman with the words, "Cigarettes hurt babies" in large, bold letters. Then, the advertisement launches into a more in-depth explanation of the risks.

The pack I didn't buy featured two small children and the words, "Please don't poison us."

While I fully recognize the risks of my disgusting habit and applaud the Canadian government's efforts to educate its citizens, I have to admit, these ads are more than a bit shocking. Frankly, I can't believe anyone here has the audacity to continue smoking or at least buying products with such dire warnings in public.

The irony, of course, is that almost every restaurant I've been to here continues to have both a smoking and nonsmoking section, an option that stopped being common in the United States when I was still a child.

And while we're talking about unhealthy habits, I attended a "media orientation" for the Arctic Winter Games here Saturday. Held at a sports bar and grill, the event offered free drinks and snacks for the 220 journalists in town to cover the Games.

The "snacks" included three heated trays of fried foods: jalapeno poppers, fried shrimp, chicken nuggets, and the like. While none of the items were particularly good for either the digestive system or the arteries, they were moderately tasty.

That is, until I came to the little triangular item. At first glance, I assumed it was some sort of fried potato (where's the gravy?). After a couple bites, though, I found it was something far stranger: deep fat fried macaroni and cheese.

The weirdest part, though, was trying to decide whether this bite-size-heart-attack was disgusting or delicious. My opinion changed with every bite, and I have to admit, I ate three, much to the chagrin of my body.

One thing I did decide, though, is that Canada well intentioned as it may be apparently has some conflicting views on health.

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