The industry's code, introduced in December 1995 after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a 1988 ban on tobacco advertising, was revised last month by the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers' Council.
The society cited 36 possible code violations, including advertising in retail stores within 200 meters (650 feet) of school property.
The council responded that the limits were meant to apply only to outdoor advertising.
"We screwed up, frankly, in drafting the code," said Robert Parker, president of the council, which represents the three largest tobacco companies in Canada-Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. and RJR-Macdonald, both based in Toronto, and Imperial Tobacco Ltd., Montreal. "We talked for three months about outdoor advertising, but failed to say it specifically in the code."
The council revised the code to restrict outdoor advertising only, and directed tobacco makers to ask retailers within school boundaries not to display window ads.
But the cancer society argued that the tobacco council's actions strengthen the case for instituting formal legislation.
"They had a provision that there could be no advertising within 200 meters of schools. Now ads in stores are permitted," said a cancer society attorney. "Legislation is necessary. Self-regulation is not a satisfactory alternative. If they breach the code, there is no fine to pay, and they can change the code any time they want. If you have a law, the law applies to everyone."
The society also filed a renewed complaint that RJR-Macdonald continues to violate the industry's voluntary code concerning legible health warnings.
An RJR spokeswoman responded that two-thirds of the violations have already been dealt with and the rest will be taken care of by July 16.
The society also complained that the revised code does not allow new brand trademarks depicting people, but has exempted those already in use.
One new restriction limits tobacco ads to publications with at least 75% of readers age 18 or older.
Tobacco sponsorship advertising is now under review by the tobacco council.
"The code is very much a living code," said Mary Trudelle, VP-corporate affairs for RJR-Macdonald. "There are probably still areas that we could clarify further. Refinement is ongoing."
Last month, pre-clearance of tobacco ads was moved to the Canadian Advertising Foundation, the advertising industry's self-regulatory body which clears other categories of ads (such as those for cosmetics and food).
"Our organization possesses the expertise to ensure objective and uniform application of the tobacco industry's own voluntary advertising code and to provide appropriate facilities to administer consumer complaints," said Linda Nagel, CAF president.
Advertising not meeting the code will be rejected with a request for change and resubmission. The CAF has asked media to ensure that only approved ads are exhibited.
But the cancer society is not confident that pre-clearance by the CAF will improve matters, since CAF's review is not made public, and complaints can be made only after the ads appear.
Observers expect that new legislation banning tobacco advertising will be debated in Parliament when the legislature reconvenes in September.