VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The Canadian government on Tuesday proposed a ban on fruit-flavored cigarettes and small cigars that anti-smoking groups say are being marketed like candy to lure children into smoking.
Tobacco advertising rules will also be tightened to close a loophole that allows cigarettes to be advertised in newspapers and magazines that claim to be aimed at an adults but are available to anyone and often given out for free.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the industry's own internal documents showed it was using sweet flavors like grape, banana and peach to entice teenagers to try tobacco for the first time so they become addicted.
"Tobacco is not candy and should never be mistaken as such," Aglukkaq told a news conference in Ottawa.
Canada's tobacco industry denies it markets it products to children. The country's larger producers do not make fruit-flavored cigarettes or cigarillos, but they are imported from foreign producers.
Cigarette use among teenagers in Canada has declined from 28 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2007, but anti-smoking groups worry that flavored smoking products will reverse that trend.
"Parents might not know about them, but their children do," said Rob Cunningham, of the Canadian Cancer Society.
The restrictions would not ban menthol-flavored tobacco.
The legislation unveiled on Tuesday would also ban tobacco advertising in nearly all newspapers and magazines, closing a loophole that allowed ads in publications that publishers say have an 85 percent adult readership.
Because that allows ads in entertainment newspapers available for free on the street in major cities, it was impossible to know what percentage of the readership was actually of legal smoking age, officials said.
Canada's largest cigarette maker, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., was studying the proposal, but a spokesman said it was already careful to screen the publications before running its ads in them, and to make sure its advertising does not target youth.
"Trust me, our ads don't look cool," said Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco.
Gagnon said the government should be doing more to crack down on the illegal cigarette market, because smugglers are will not abide by any of the proposed restrictions and are already luring youth smokers with cheap prices.
Canadian tobacco firms are also under increased legal pressure from the country's provinces, with Quebec this month introducing legislation to authorize a lawsuit seeking damages for the health-care costs of smoking.
Prince Edward Island is the only province not to have introduced or approved such legislation, which is modeled on suits filed by U.S. states against the American tobacco industry in the 1990s.
Canada's first case, filed by British Columbia nearly a decade ago, is scheduled to go to trial in September 2011, having survived constitutional challenges.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, Editing by Frank McGurty