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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada has frozen long-held plans to slap graphic new warning labels on packs of cigarettes, prompting critics to attack what they see as the tobacco industry's excessive influence on the minority Conservative government.
The federal health ministry spent six years devising the new campaign and agreeing on the details with the country's 10 provinces, which administer the public healthcare system. Earlier this month, Ottawa told the provinces the plan was on hold.
"Health Canada continues to examine the renewal of health warning messages on tobacco packaging but is not ready to move forward at this time," a spokeswoman told Reuters on Tuesday.
She also referred to recent law and order measures designed to cut the production and sale of contraband tobacco -- a key demand of the industry.
Since 2001, all cigarette packs -- which cannot be displayed openly in stores -- have carried graphic warning labels covering half the surface of the package, aimed at telling people of the health risks of smoking and getting them to quit.
Anti-smoking campaigners say the labels are tired and need to be upgraded and increased in size.
The official opposition Liberal Party said statistics showed that since the Conservatives took office in 2006, the rate at which Canadians have quit smoking has declined.
"This government is listening to the business lobby, the tobacco lobby," said legislator Ujjal Dosanjh, who was federal minister of health when the consultations were launched.
"The illegal tobacco traffic ... is important. But you can't take your eyes off this particular problem," he told Reuters, saying the government could easily fight tobacco smuggling while ensuring the warning labels were more graphic.
Meghan Leslie of the left-leaning New Democrats said the decision to freeze the anti-smoking campaign and the focus on contraband cigarettes "say to me that this is not about health ... this is about industry, at the expense of people's health, perhaps at the expense of people's lives".
"I would have expected that large warnings would be announced by now ... the government hasn't really given a clear reason why and I can't conceive of a good reason why," said Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society.
Major producers of tobacco sold in Canada include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co, Japan Tobacco's JTI-Macdonald unit, Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc, which is partly owned by Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, a unit of British American Tobacco.
Imperial Tobacco spokesman Eric Gagnon said contraband tobacco costs the industry between C$900 million ($875 million) and C$1 billion a year and undermined a host of regulations, as well as cutting into tax revenues.
"The biggest tobacco problem in Canada today is contraband. So increasing a health warning on a product that already has a 50 percent health warning -- and is also hidden from public view -- is not a public health initiative," Gagnon said.
The office of federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq did not respond to requests for comment.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson