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(Aug. 14, 2001) QUEBEC CITY/OTTAWA -- If Canada's Health Minister has his way, tobacco companies will no longer be able to use the words "ligh" or "mild" on tobacco product labels.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association, Allan Rock said, "They think that smoking 'light' or 'mild' cigarettes is better for your health, but it is false."

The slight health advantage of light cigarettes is erased when people inhale them more deeply to extract additional nicotine, Mr. Rock told about 500 medical association members.

Under proposed rules, many of Canada's best-known cigarette brands -- Player's Light and Player's Extra Light, for instance -- will have to be renamed. Details on the proposed ban are still being worked out and legislation will likely be introduced in the autumn and changes are expected to be phased-in starting next year.

Canadian health groups and anti-smoking advocates were thrilled with the announcement, while No. 1 tobacco marketer Imperial Tobacco was "surprised" at Mr. Rock's move.

Imperial officials were not available for interviews, but Imperial President-CEO Bob Bexon said in a statement that the company was actively discussing the issue with Health Canada when Mr. Rock decided to ban the descriptors.

"We believe there is a need for a system that permits consumers to navigate through the tar spectrum of brand families on the market," said Mr. Bexon, whose company markets several "light" and "mild" brands including Player's.

"Whether a new system would work better than the current one, we do not know," he said. "We can only hope the new system will not create confusion in the market and inadvertently cause smokers to revert back to higher tar products."

Tobacco marketers are expected to challenge the ban in court.

"Smoking is deadly. There are no safe or healthier options when it comes to cigarettes," said Dr. Kenneth Sky, president of the Ontario Medical Association, which has endorsed the ban. "Eliminating the terms from packaging that suggest otherwise is a positive move."

Anti-tobacco groups say that mild cigarettes comprise about half the cigarettes sold in Canada. -- Stephen Barrington and Gail Chiasson

Copyright August 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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