Lack of federal leadership in health care is undermining the effort to fight cancer, Canada's largest health charity says.

The Canadian Cancer Society says there's a risk the projected increase in cancer cases among the growing and aging population will overwhelm families, health-care providers and the economy, unless there's a strong national response.

Australia Cigarette Labeling

Canada has fallen behind other countries in introducing logo-free packaging on cigarettes. (Rob Griffith/Associated Press)

For cancer care and prevention, "you get better or worse access to services depending on where you live," says Pamela Fralick, president and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society. "These are things that really require the federal government to step in."

In a new report, the society's recommendations to the next government include:

  • Reduce tobacco use by catching up with Australia, Great Britain and Ireland on plain packaging rules and restore the 40 per cent cut in funding for tobacco control.
  • Guarantee in federal legislation the right of all Canadians to affordable, high-quality palliative care, which can vary dramatically among communities in the same region. It said no single government or political party is to blame, but the next federal government will have no excuse for failing to act on palliative care.
  • Commit to long-term investments in health research, which have flat-lined, to keep up with rising costs. A failure to do so risks crowding out fundamental research by "a federal innovation agenda skewed toward short-term commercial interests."

The society says that while federal health spending has gone up, federal accountability for health has gone down.

"Over the past decade, health policy has been pushed to the margins of the national agenda. Canadians' real-world health concerns don't receive the same attention or priority they once did," the report's authors say. "What's left is chequebook federalism: Ottawa takes in and ships out billions of tax dollars for health care, but without setting clear national objectives for its investments or effectively measuring their impact."

Tom McIntosh, a professor of political science at the University of Regina, headed research for the Romanow commission on health care in 2001.

"It doesn't look like health is going to be one of those big battlegrounds," McIntosh said. "Now, maybe, if others follow the Cancer Society's lead, this pushes the health policy questions back onto the agenda."

A statement sent from Health Minister Rona Ambrose defended the Conservative government's track record, saying more than $1.3 billion has been invested in cancer research under the current prime minister.

The health minister's statement also cited the creation of the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, as well as funding for prevention, screening, support, palliative care and other initiatives.

"All have a role to play in the fight against cancer," Ambrose said. "The Harper government's delivery of the highest health transfer dollars in Canadian history is providing provinces and territories with the resources they need to deliver the quality front-line health care that patients need."

The society pointed to what it calls failures and missed opportunities to adequately improve the domestic strategy to reduce asbestos exposure, the leading cause of workplace death, and to build political partnerships among different levels of government to fight cancer.

With files from CBC's Vik Adhopia