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Tobacco products in Canada must be sold in packages that are brown, devoid of all colours and logos and feature large, graphic health warnings, according to new federal rules that health experts say are the toughest in the world.

The plain-packaging regulations, which were announced Wednesday and will come into force at retail stores next February, are a key pillar in the federal government’s strategy to reduce tobacco use among Canadians to less than 5 per cent of the population by 2035.

A key pillar in Ottawa's effort to reduce tobacco use among Canadians to less than 5 per cent of the population by 2035, the plain packaging to be introduced in February is designed to limit companies' ability to distinguish their products through branding, such as is the case in Australia, where a pack of cigarettes is seen in 2017.Jason Reed/Reuters

Countries such as Australia and Britain already have such regulations in place for tobacco products. Australia was the first to introduce plain packaging, in 2012, and research shows it has helped reduce smoking rates.

But Canada’s new rules are even tougher, according to health advocates. One of the most notable distinctions is that Canadian regulations require cigarette packages to be a slide-and-shell design, rather than the smaller, narrower flip-top design; this increases the size of the health warning, making it the largest in the world, said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.

“It’s a very significant public health measure and it’s going to make a difference,” he said.

The new rules will also ban slim cigarettes and what are known as “purse packs,” which are typically smaller and thinner and have been designed to appeal to women.

All cigarette packages will be a colour known as “drab brown." While companies can include their names on packages, they must be in a plain font with no distinguishing features.

The tobacco industry opposes plain packaging, and some companies have used lobbyists and public campaigns to argue against the changes. In a statement, Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada, called the new rules “bad public policy.”

“The experience of other countries demonstrates that plain packaging does not change consumer behaviour and that it’s a proven way to fuel an already booming illegal market in Canada,” he said.

Andrew Pipe, chair of the board of directors of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, said there is evidence plain packaging works and that it’s an important mechanism to underscore that tobacco use should not be considered a normal habit.

The new rules take effect Feb. 7, 2020, although manufacturers will have more time to comply with the mandatory slide-and-shell format.

Dr. Pipe, who is also a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa’s Division of Cardiac Prevention and Rehabilitation, added that more work needs to be done. He singled out e-cigarettes as a rising health threat that policy-makers need to address, especially since Ontario passed legislation that allows companies to advertise e-cigarettes in public places.

Reports suggest e-cigarette use among young people is growing rapidly in Canada, creating the risk of nicotine addiction and introducing a new generation to traditional cigarettes. Research shows that teens who vape are more likely to smoke.

The federal government has promised to introduce a ban on e-cigarette advertising, but it could take months or years before it takes effect.