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Cigarettes sit on a shelf in Montreal in 2012. Updated regulations to laws would also make manufacturers rotate warnings on cigarette packs, so they have greater impact on consumers.Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Ottawa has made changes to regulations so it can make tobacco companies put health warnings on individual cigarettes and rotate graphic health messages on packages to increase their impact.

The move would make Canada the first country in the world to make tobacco companies place warnings on each cigarette or cigar.

The government this month quietly amended the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act and the Tobacco Products Regulations to require the placing of a clear written warning on individual cigarettes.

The updated regulations would also make manufacturers rotate warnings on cigarette packs, so they remain eye-catching. There is concern that the 13 per cent of people in Canada who smoke become desensitized to graphic health warnings on packs because they see them so often.

The updated regulations say packages of all tobacco products would also have to include toxicity information, in addition to an image and message about tobacco cessation and a toll-free help line number.

The government is expected to give tobacco companies time to comply and make the new warnings regime mandatory as early as next year.

In June last year, Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, launched a consultation on the proposals to put warnings on individual cigarettes. She is expected to signal her decision to press ahead with the plan, and provide details, on World Tobacco Day on Wednesday.

Health campaigners in Britain praised Canada for leading the way in putting health warnings on individual cigarettes.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, England, said she hoped Westminster would now follow Ottawa’s lead.

“We’re delighted to see Canada go first, because where Canada leads other governments like ours will surely follow, just as they did with large graphic health warnings, which Canada was the first to put on cigarette packs and are now ubiquitous around the world,” she said.

“Cigarettes, not cigarette packs, kill smokers, so clearly health warnings are needed on the sticks themselves, not just the packs.”

Lord Young of Cookham, a former British health minister, tried last year to introduce health warnings on individual cigarettes through a private member’s bill, which passed in the House of Lords.

But the British government did not adopt the measure following opposition from the tobacco industry.

This month in Ottawa, the federal government made an order amending the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act to permit the use of colouring agents to whiten cigarette paper to allow health warnings to be added.

It also published updated regulations setting out detailed rules for the display of health warnings in English and French, on cigarette packets, saying they must cover 75 per cent of the display area of a package.

The regulations would enable the government to extend the display of health warnings on cigarette packets, for example through a flap.

Among the warnings that could be added to individual cigarettes, suggested last year at the launch of the consultation, was the warning “poison in every puff.”

Canada became the first country in the world to put graphic health warnings on cigarette packages in June, 2001. They had to cover 50 per cent of the front and 50 per cent of the back of the package in English and French.

Some young people start smoking by being given a single cigarette, rather than a pack with a graphic health warning.

Tobacco use continues to be the leading preventable cause of illness and premature death in the country, killing around 48,000 Canadians each year, according to the federal health department.

Sales and production of cigarettes have been dropping in Canada, as well as the number of smokers.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 961.6 million cigarettes produced in Canada in January, the third-lowest monthly production on record. Canadian retailers sold $11.8-billion of tobacco products in 2022, down from $12.1-billion in 2021. There were 3.8 million smokers in Canada in 2021, down from around 5.3 million in 2015.

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