It was 50 years ago today that Canada’s minister of national health and welfare, Judy LaMarsh, stunned the country by standing in the House of Commons to state that smoking caused life-threatening health problems.

The declaration, unprecedented at the time, marked a first step in the war on tobacco. Within months, the Canadian Medical Association was urging its membership to stop smoking -- at least during professional duties. And seven months later, the U.S. Surgeon General released his much more famous report stating there was strong evidence that smoking caused lung cancer.

Compared to today, it was a different world in 1963 when LaMarsh stood to declare: “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.”

Back then, 50 per cent of Canadians smoked, including 61 per cent of men. There was almost nowhere you could go where smoking wasn’t allowed, including in offices, theatres, airplanes, and even hospitals.

Of course, a lot has changed since then, says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.

“A combination of education and awareness campaigns, and then smoking bylaws and tax increases have made a difference,” he told CTV’s Canada AM Monday from Ottawa.

“So we’re now down to 17 per cent of Canadians. But a lot of work still needs to be done.”

Tobacco remains the leading preventable cause of disease in Canada, and causes 37,000 deaths each year in Canada. Lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death in Canada, with close to 85 per cent of cases linked to smoking.

As well, smoking increases the risk for many other types of cancer including oral cancer, throat cancer, and colorectal cancer. And of course, it also raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Cunningham says since LaMarsh made that declaration 50 years ago, Canada has been a leader in the fight against smoking.

We were the first country in the world to ban smoking on airlines, for example, back in 1987. We also hosted the first smoke-free Olympics, with the Calgary Winter Games in 1988.

We were also the first country to add picture warnings to cigarette packages back in 1989. Back then the warnings made up only 20 per cent of the packaging; today the warning size has increased to 75 per cent.

“Overall, Canada has done well (when it comes to anti-tobacco legislation) compared to other countries,” Cunningham said. “But in some areas, other countries have gone further.”

Australia, for example, has introduced plain cigarette packaging, with no logos, colours or distinct fonts allowed. Brazil has done better, Cunningham said, with its ban on fruit-flavoured tobaccos that appeal to children.

“Over the years, Canada has been a world leader,” he said. “But it’s a leapfrog: sometimes other countries have followed Canada and other times, we’ve followed other countries.”

To continue to drive down smoking rates, the Canadian Cancer Society is calling for:

  • An increase in tobacco taxes to $50 per carton
  • Bans on smoking at outdoor patios of bars and restaurants as well as beaches, parks and playgrounds
  • A reduction in the number of places where tobacco is sold, including pharmacies, to make it less convenient to buy tobacco products
  • A ban on all flavoured tobacco products including menthol cigarettes, many types of little cigars, water pipe tobacco, and smokeless tobacco, all of which have a broader appeal to a younger demographic
  • Sustained, well-funded government prevention and cessation programs to prevent people from starting to smoke and support them when they wish to quit