Canada's war on tobacco turns 50

14 June 2013

Toronto -

Monday, June 17, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of a historic statement by Canada’s Minister of National Health and Welfare, Judy LaMarsh, that smoking causes lung cancer. On that day, Minister LaMarsh rose in the House of Commons and declared: “There is scientific evidence that cigarette smoking is a contributory cause of lung cancer and that it may also be associated with chronic bronchitis and coronary heart disease.”

Canada was a different place in 1963. Smoking was permitted virtually everywhere, including hospitals, schools, airplanes and restaurants. Knowledge of the health effects was poor. Taxes were low and cigarettes were cheap. Cigarettes were widely advertised on TV, radio, billboards, newspapers and magazines. There were no health warnings on cigarette packages.

Along with her declaration in the House of Commons, LaMarsh also announced that a national conference would be held in the autumn of that year to fully discuss the health evidence about smoking: “Proposals can be made for a positive and effective program regarding this problem,” she said. Following the conference, in 1964, the Department of National Health and Welfare launched a public awareness campaign.

Interestingly, LaMarsh’s 1963 statement came 7 months before the much more famous U.S. Surgeon General’s report stating that smoking causes lung cancer, released on January 11, 1964.

In the 50 years since 1963, many battles have been fought in Canada for social change and tobacco control legislation and great progress has been made in reducing the numbers of smokers. In 1965, 50% of Canadian adults smoked (61% of men and 38% of women). As of 2011, that number has dropped to 17%. 

Not surprisingly, the tobacco industry did not take kindly to LaMarsh’s public statement about the dangers of smoking, responding with denial. The industry told the 1963 conference: “The fact is that the ‘mounting evidence’ consists of repetition of the same charges restated by different people. This ‘evidence’ was and remains inconclusive, no matter how often it is repeated and restated.” The tobacco industry has continued its concerted efforts to recruit new smokers and keep them smoking ever since.

Canada’s record

Canada’s efforts to reduce smoking in the 1960s focused on public awareness. This was followed by municipal smoking bylaws in the mid-1970s, and tax increases and substantive legislation in the 1980s. Over the years, Canada has often demonstrated world leadership:

  • Canada was the first country to ban smoking on all domestic airline flights (1987) and international flights of its domestic airlines (1994).
  • Calgary was the first to host a smoke-free Olympics (1988).
  • Canada was first country to require package health warnings using graphic pictures (2001) and covering 50% of the package front and back (2001).  Earlier, Canada was the first country to require package warnings in black and white (as opposed to package colours) (1994) as well as the first to require a 35% warning size (1994) and a 20% warning size (1989).  In 2012, the warning size was increased to 75%.
  • Saskatchewan was the second jurisdiction in the world (after Iceland) to ban the visible display of tobacco products at retail (2002).
  • Canada was the first country to ban all flavours (except menthol) in cigarettes and some little cigars, through Bill C-32 which came into effect in 2010.

 See media backgrounder #1 for more highlights of Canada’s 50-year war on tobacco

The current situation in Canada

While great progress has been made, efforts to reduce smoking rates further continue to be hampered by the tobacco industry’s marketing tactics and opposition to stronger tobacco control measures. 

There are still 5 million smokers in Canada. That’s 17% of Canadians (14% of women and 20% of men).

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Canada, killing more people than the next top 3 cancers combined (breast, prostate and colorectal).  In 2013, a total of 20,200 Canadians will die of lung cancer.

Smoking accounts for about 30% of all cancer deaths. It is linked with an increased risk for many types of cancer, including lung, larynx, oral, colorectal, stomach, pancreas, cervical, ovarian, bladder and kidney.

Lung cancer deaths rates have been dropping in Canadian men, with men’s smoking having begun to drop in the 1960s. But lung cancer deaths among women have not yet decreased (the drop in smoking by women didn’t start until later – in the 1980s).

What’s next in the war on tobacco?

“While we have made significant progress in reducing smoking, an enormous amount of work remains to be done,” says Rob Cunningham, Senior Policy Analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society. “It is essential that government regulatory and programming initiatives be strengthened so that smoking rates can be driven down as fast as possible.”

For example, tobacco control measures should include:

  • a ban on all flavoured tobacco products, not just the cigarettes and some little cigars covered by federal legislation
  • plain packaging, as was implemented in Australia December 1, 2012 and announced in Ireland on May 28, 2013. Plain packaging would still keep picture health warnings on packages.
  • smoke-free requirements for selected outdoor areas such as patios, parks and playgrounds
  • further tobacco tax increases along with contraband prevention measures
  • effective public health outcomes of the provincial government medicare cost recovery lawsuits against the tobacco industry
  • a reduction in the number of retail locations selling tobacco
  • sustained, well-funded government prevention and cessation programs

“The tobacco industry has engaged in 50 years of wrongful behavior,” says Cunningham.  “Had the industry behaved responsibly after Health Minister LaMarsh’s statement, smoking rates would have declined much faster and vast numbers of Canadians would not have succumbed to cancer and other debilitating diseases. Instead, the tobacco industry engaged in a sustained campaign of denying the health effects, marketing cigarettes as glamorous, advertising to kids, misleading smokers through so-called “light” and “mild” cigarettes, and using lobbyists and lawyers in efforts to block legislation.  It is a tragedy that so many preventable deaths could have been avoided.”

See media backgrounder #2 for facts on tobacco

For 75 years the Canadian Cancer Society has been with Canadians in the fight for life. We have been relentless in our commitment to prevent cancer, fund research and support Canadians touched by cancer. From this foundation, we will work with Canadians to change cancer forever so fewer Canadians are diagnosed with the disease and more survive. Visit cancer.ca or call us at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

For more information, please contact:

Brooke Kelly

Communications Coordinator

Canadian Cancer Society

National office

Phone: 416-934-5321