(In paragraph 7, please read "the Canadian unit of Philip Morris International" instead of "the Canadian unit of Japan Tobacco Inc", correcting parent company of Rothmans Benson & Hedges)
By David Ljunggren and Ismail Shakil
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is proposing that written health warnings be printed on individual cigarettes, the first country in the world to do so, a federal minister said on Friday.
In 2001, Canada broke new ground globally by requiring picture warnings on cigarette packages. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said the measure had become stale for the 13% of Canadians who smoke regularly.
"Adding health warnings on individual tobacco products will help ensure that these essential messages reach people, including the youth, who often access cigarettes one at a time in social situations sidestepping the information printed on a package," she told reporters.
Despite decades of efforts, tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of illness and premature death in Canada, killing approximately 48,000 people each year, Ottawa said in a statement.
A 75-day public consultation period will start on June 11 and this will inform the development of the proposed new regulations, it added.
Other steps include extending the existing list of health risks printed on cigarette packs.
Rothmans Benson & Hedges, the Canadian unit of Philip Morris International, said the proposals would not help cut the number of smokers.
"We believe that better choices start with better information, and the millions of current adult smokers should be given access to the appropriate information about alternatives," a spokesperson said by email.
The other two major vendors of tobacco products in Canada are subsidiaries of British American Tobacco PLC and Japan Tobacco Inc. Neither company was immediately available for comment.
Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society said the measures should be implemented as soon as possible.
"A warning on every cigarette simply cannot be ignored, especially considering that there are more than 20 billion cigarettes sold each year in Canada," he said.
(This story corrects in paragraph 7, please read "the Canadian unit of Philip Morris International PM.N" instead of "the Canadian unit of Japan Tobacco Inc", correcting parent company of Rothmans Benson & Hedges)
(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Gregorio)