Canada was once a smoker’s heaven.

In 1963, smoking was permitted virtually everywhere, including hospitals, schools, airplanes and restaurants. Cigarettes were widely advertised on TV, radio, billboards, newspapers and magazines and associated with happiness, relief and leisure. Taxes were low and cigarettes were cheap. Health warnings on cigarette packages did not exist. Nor did ‘non-smoking’ sections — unless you counted a lone seating area where no ashtray happened to be placed on a table.

Roughly 50 per cent of Canadian adults smoked (61 per cent of men and 38 per cent of women). As of 2011, that number dropped to 17 per cent.

That cultural shift came about largely because of a bombshell statement that Canada's Minister of National Health and Welfare, Judy LaMarsh, dropped in the House of Commons 50 years ago.

On June 17, 1963, Minister LaMarsh rose 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."

'Historical landmark'

In a world where any negative reference to smoking or the cigarette industry was considered taboo, if not downright deplorable, Minister LaMarsh’s statement was not exactly welcomed.

The moment was "very significant in terms of a historical landmark," says Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society. At that time, the tobacco industry continuously denied any link between smoking and cancer.

"We knew the first modern studies on smoking and lung cancer were posted in the 1950s but the tobacco industry had a campaign of denial through [the launch of] their own studies," he says. "But eventually the evidence accumulated and in 1963 the evidence was sufficient for Canada's health minister to make that announcement."

The day after LaMarsh — who used to smoke — rose in the House of Commons, Rothmans, a tobacco company, announced that it would no longer air tobacco commercials before 9 p.m.

The message had gotten through. The next year, the National Health and Welfare department held a national conference to discuss fully the health evidence around smoking — and a vigorous public awareness campaign began.

Since 1963, Canada has led the way globally to reduce smoking. LaMarsh's statement even came before a renowned U.S. Surgeon General's report on January 11, 1964 which confirmed that smoking triggered lung cancer in men.

It also became the first country to ban smoking on all domestic airline flights in 1987 and international flights of its domestic airlines in 1994. Calgary was the first city to host a smoke-free Olympics in 1988.

There’s no doubt that LaMarsh’s initiative sparked Canadian and international consciousness of the dangers of smoking.

Smokers remain

But almost one in five Canadians still smoke.

"It is very frustrating because a lot has gone into tobacco control over the past 50 years," says Rosa Dragonetti, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "We have managed to bring it down quite a bit but there are still young people who think that they can try one or two cigarettes and nothing will happen."

"The tobacco industry will still target teens even though they are not allowed to do it directly," she adds. "They will do it through promotion of certain activities on university and college campuses."

"An enormous amount of work remains to be done," agrees Cunningham, adding that figures by the Canadian Cancer Society indicate that smoking accounts for about 30 per cent of all cancer deaths.

"With lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in Canada, more people die than the next top three cancers [breast, prostate and colorectal] combined," he said.