50 years after historic report, Canadian officials reflect on anti-smoking efforts

In this March 18, 2013 file photo cigarette packs are displayed for sale at a convenience store in New York. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file

TORONTO – Just 50 years ago, lighting up was ubiquitous. Canadians could smoke on airplanes, in classrooms and offices, doctors smoked and MPs had ashtrays in the House of Commons. Even cartoon characters were endorsing cigarettes.

“It was a very different world,” Rob Cunningham, a lawyer, author and senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, says.

“Smoking was everywhere – it was in elevators, it was in restaurants, university classrooms, on television commercials and the radio. It was just everywhere,” he said.

Then on Jan. 11 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released a history-making report that linked cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.

READ MORE: US is marking 50th anniversary of surgeon general report that turned the tide against smoking

This Saturday marks 50 years since those first battle words against smoking, and at that time, they were dramatic.

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A moment in public health policy history

“[It] was a huge landmark, it received enormous media coverage in Canada and for decades later, it was cited as part of a continuing effort to reduce smoking,” Cunningham said.

Terry’s report, called one of the most important documents in U.S. public health history, made front page news across North America as he urged the government to help cut back on smoking. Before then, there were few studies and even less action taken to understanding how smoking may be bad for our health.

At the time, Terry himself was a smoker. An assistant surgeon general helped Terry kick the habit only months before releasing the report.

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“I told him, ‘You gotta quit that. I think you can get away with a pipe — if you don’t do it openly.’ He said, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. It just wouldn’t do. If you smoke any cigarettes, you better do it in a closet,’” Dr. Eugene Guthrie told the Associated Press.

And since that report, Cunningham said that the U.S. — and Canada — has come a long way in tobacco control.

How Canadian health officials changed their stance on smoking

In the subsequent decades, Canadian networks dropped tobacco advertising, trains designated non-smoking areas while airlines banned smoking altogether and tobacco taxes began to rise above inflation.

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In 1964, 50 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older were lighting up. Sixty-one per cent of men were smokers.

Most recent data suggests that only 16 per cent of Canadians smoke.

READ MORE: How health officials helped 120,000 people quit smoking

Scott McDonald, president of the B.C. Lung Association, says the Surgeon General’s report was the catalyst for change. McDonald’s been with the association for the past 35 years.

“It brought awareness and it caused other governments to undertake studies, to consider initiatives,” he explained.

READ MORE: Smokers who quit before 40 save a decade of their lives: study

But Canada’s own federal health minister beat the U.S. to this groundbreaking statement: in 1963, Judy LaMarsh had said that smoking contributes to lung cancer. That same year, the Canadian Medical Association’s president urged doctors to stop smoking, at least while looking after sick patients.

In Canada, the first voluntary warning was on the side of packages in 1972. By 1989, it was mandatory for packets to have a health warning that covered 20 per cent of the package. Marketers had a loophole, though – the warnings were camouflaged because they were written in the same colours as the branding.

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By 1994, warnings covered 35 per cent of the front and back of cigarette packaging and the warnings had to be black and white. By 2001, Canada was the first country in the world to require picture warnings that wrapped around 50 per cent of the boxes.

READ MORE: Canadian study links secondhand smoke to childhood aggression

A 1986 follow-up report from the U.S. surgeon general linked second-hand smoke to disease, including lung cancer, in healthy non-smokers.

Two years later, more contentious findings from U.S. health officials: tobacco can be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. That year, the World Health Organization organized its first World No Tobacco Day — and it’s been celebrated every May 31 since.

Canada has been a trailblazer in tobacco control policy:

  • In 1976, Ottawa passed the first municipal smoking bylaw in Canada restricting smoking in indoor public spaces
  • In 1988, Calgary hosted the world’s first smoke-free Olympics
  • In 1989, smoking banned on all domestic airline flights in Canada

READ MORE: Should smoking bans extend to public parks and beaches? Debate sparks controversy in Canada

  • In 1993, six provinces and one territory set a minimum age of 19 for smoking
  • In 1994, Ontario was the first province to ban tobacco sales in pharmacies
  • In 1996, Vancouver became the first city to force restaurants to be 100 per cent smoke-free
  • Saskatchewan, in 2001, became the first province to ban tobacco displays in stores. The rest of Canada followed suit after
  • In 2004, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nunavut all banned smoking in restaurants and bars

Still more work to do, advocates say

With the ushering in of warning labels on cigarette packaging and banning smoke in public spaces, Cunningham says there’s still room for improvement.

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In Australia, laws force the tobacco industry to scale back its branding and marketing of cigarette packages. So far, the lack of branding may make cigarettes less satisfying to smokers, research has suggested.

READ MORE: Could plain packaging for cigarettes help Canadians quit smoking?

Menthol and flavoured tobacco products are still widely circulated — and used amongst Canadian youth — and B.C. is the only province with pharmacies that still dole out tobacco products.

READ MORE: Candy-flavoured tobacco products enticing Canadian students to take up smoking, survey says

Smoking is still allowed in certain areas — patios, municipal parks and playgrounds.

“This anniversary is an opportunity to recognize how much progress has been made in reducing smoking and how much work remains to be done,” Cunningham said.

There are five million smokers in Canada and it’s still a leading cause of death.

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