CBC Digital Archives

Canadian tobacco makes a fine cigarette

Not too long ago, Canadians could smoke virtually anywhere they pleased: at work, in theatres, restaurants and even hospitals. Smoking rates peaked in the early 1960s, when nearly half of all adults puffed away. But as evidence of the health hazards of cigarettes piled up, high taxes, graphic warnings and restrictions on smoking have helped make smoking unacceptable. CBC Archives traces the decline of smoking in Canada.

From cultivation to inhalation, tobacco is big business in Canada. And Canadians prefer a home-grown product - about 99 per cent of the tobacco in their cigarettes is Canadian. On the CBC Radio program Assignment, tobacco expert John Fitzgerald describes the origins of the cigarette. He also looks at how tobacco is processed and explains why American and Canadian tobaccos taste so different.

"Do you think [lung cancer] is really caused by tobacco?" asks host Bill McNeil. Fitzgerald says there do seem to be cancer-causing agents in cigarette smoke, and cautions against smoking if you have a family history of cancer. As for why it's so hard to quit smoking, Fitzgerald has plenty of reasons. "It's like food, it's company, it placates your nerves, it gives you something to do with your hands," he says. 
• The long history of smoking begins in the Americas, where aboriginal people used tobacco for centuries before Europeans arrived.
• In 1535, when French explorer Jacques Cartier landed at what is now Montreal, he observed local natives using tobacco. Cartier's diary noted: "They pulverize this herb and place it at one end, lighting it with a fire brand, and draw on the other end so long that they fill their bodies with smoke until it comes out of their mouth and nostrils as from a chimney."

• European explorers and their crews quickly adopted the habit and took tobacco back to Europe. From there its popularity spread further across Asia.
• Tobacco was soon denounced by authorities as "the Indian vice." Roman Catholics who used it faced excommunication, and King James I of England (1556-1625) levied a huge import tax on tobacco to discourage its use. In 1634, the Russian czar decreed that repeat users be sentenced to death.

• In this radio clip, tobacco expert John Fitzgerald says cigarettes in their present-day form were invented by Russians during the Crimean War (1854-56). In fact, small, hand-rolled cigars had long been smoked in Spanish colonies in the New World, and the cigarito then became popular in Spain itself. They were soon manufactured in France and Russia as well.
• In the Crimean War, English soldiers adopted cigarettes from their French and Turkish allies. Their easy portability was ideal in war.

• Upon their return home, the English soldiers preferred this new form of tobacco over pipes or cigars.
• In the United States, the Civil War (1861-65) also introduced the cigarette to tobacco consumers. At the time, Americans were the greatest per-capita consumers of tobacco.
• Many Americans, accustomed to chewing their tobacco, regarded cigarettes as inferior. It wasn't until 1922 that the cigarette would outsell other forms of tobacco in the United States.

• In 1895, Canadians consumed 66 million cigarettes – an average of just 13 per year for every man, woman and child.
• The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) opposed cigarettes, and in 1903, it lobbied the House of Commons to introduce a bill outlawing them. The bill failed on a technicality, and the Commons tried again in 1904. The cigarette ban was approved, 52-28, but the bill died because it did not receive assent before the end of the session.

• With the start of the First World War, the cigarette's place in Canadian society was assured. According to the book Smoke and Mirrors: The Canadian Tobacco War, by Rob Cunningham, "it became patriotic to send tobacco overseas to soldiers."
• Some Canadian cigars of the period were named after personalities. Among the brands were Byron (the English poet), Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) and Laurier (Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was prime minister at the time).
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Sept. 4, 1961
Guest(s): John Fitzgerald
Host: Bill McNeil
Duration: 6:59
Photo: Library and Archives Canada / PA-080677

Last updated: April 10, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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