The federal government has introduced new rules that will force tobacco companies to include larger and more graphic anti-smoking warning labels on cigarette packages.
Once the rules are enacted, the new anti-smoking ads will cover 75 per cent of the package, instead of the current required 50 per cent, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Thursday.
One of the new labels features a deathbed photograph of former Canadian model Barb Tarbox, who became an anti-smoking activist before her death from lung cancer in 2003 at age 42.
The labels will also display a phone number for a quit-smoking hotline, while a social media campaign will be launched targeting smokers aged 20-24, the minister told reporters in Ottawa.
"We know that having the warnings is still the most effective method to warn smokers of the health risks of smoking," Aglukkaq said.
Despite the minister's announcement on Thursday, it could still be some time before Canadians actually start seeing the labels on cigarette packs.
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Aglukkaq said she hopes to introduce the legislation "as soon as possible" in the new year.
But once the rules are passed, Health Canada must notify the tobacco companies and give them a transition period before the label rules come into effect, an official in Aglukkaq's department said.
In a statement on Thursday, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. said it "lamented" Aglukkaq's decision to impose new regulations on the legal tobacco industry and accused the minister of abandoning her commitment to tackle Canada's contraband tobacco problem.
Aglukkaq, who had initially planned to introduce the new labels in September, has been criticized for not bringing in the updated warnings sooner.
Earlier this month, CBC News revealed that tobacco executives have been carrying out a lobbying campaign against revised labelling for the past two years.
The tobacco companies argued the warnings didn't leave them enough room for branding. They said the government should fight the sale of contraband cigarettes instead.
But Aglukkaq insisted Thursday she had not met with tobacco lobbyists and the federal government never abandoned plans to reinforce the warning labels.
"I've always said we'd move forward with this, and we're moving forward today," she said.
Tories tried to bury campaign: Liberals, NDP
But Opposition MPs said the government only acted now because of intense public pressure following reports that the Conservatives were suspending the planned campaign after spending nearly $4 million developing the warnings.
"Takes a lot of voices together to overcome lobbyist influence w this gov't. We did it!" NDP MP Megan Leslie wrote on Twitter after Aglukkaq's announcement.
"Only public uproar over the influence of the tobacco lobby has forced them to change course, and so here they are with a hasty announcement designed to cover their tracks buried in the holiday season," Liberal health critic Ujjal Dosanjh said in a release.
The government's move was immediately applauded by several health advocacy groups, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
"With warning labels, size matters," said Heart and Stroke Foundation chair Irfhan Rawji.
"Giving Canadians the straight-up goods on the dangers of tobacco industry products in a more prominent and visible way is a significant step in the ongoing battle to reduce tobacco consumption."
Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, told CBC News the current warning labels have grown "extremely stale" over the past decade.
"No corporation would ever run for 10 years with the same advertising campaign, with the same messaging, to the consumers of the message," Mahood said.
But Mike McInnis of Charlottetown said he believes more graphic labelling of cigarettes is a waste of time. He's been smoking since he was 18, and said he can't quit, even after losing his wife recently to lung cancer.
"It's pathetic. It's not effective. Never was," he told CBC News in reference to the labelling about the dangers of smoking. "People know how bad it is. Like I say, I see it. I lost my wife.
"I think if the government had some guts and just turned around and got rid of cigarettes completely, a lot of people would be a lot more healthier."[GALLERY id=4187 cat=health]