Tobacco Control Advocacy and Policies—Canada

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Canada is recognized as a world leader in tobacco control. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Canada had the world's highest per capita tobacco consumption, but by 1992, adult per capita consumption was 40 percent lower than in 1982. Government data indicate that the smoking rate fell from 50 percent of adults in 1965 to 25 percent in 1999.

In 1964, tobacco manufacturers adopted a voluntary code with modest advertising restrictions, later amended to prohibit direct television and radio advertising starting in 1978. Effective in 1989, the federal Tobacco Products Control Act (TPCA) included a phased-in tobacco advertising ban. In practice, however, tobacco manufacturers shifted marketing expenditures to sponsorship advertising. Following a tobacco industry constitutional challenge, in 1995 the Supreme Court of Canada invalidated key parts of the TPCA. A replacement law, the Tobacco Act, was adopted in 1997. This act contains significant advertising restrictions and, effective October 1, 2003, a total ban on sponsorship advertising. Since 1989, federal law has prohibited free distribution of tobacco products, and has banned incentive promotions (e.g., contests, gifts, rebates, and frequent purchaser programs).

Health warnings on cigarette packages first appeared in Canada in 1972, with a single voluntary statement placed by manufacturers in small print on the package. In 1989, federal legislation required one of four rotated warnings to cover 20 percent of the package front and back. In 1994, one of eight rotated warnings had to cover about the top 35 percent of the package front and back. The warnings appeared in black and white instead of in package colors as in previous warnings. As of 2001, sixteen rotated warnings are required, covering the top 50 percent of the package front and back. The warnings include color photographs of the health effects of smoking. Further, sixteen rotated interior messages are required, including messages with cessation advice. Toxic emission reporting on the side panel has become more detailed over time, with yields for tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, and hydrogen cyanide required.

Significantly, increased tobacco taxes in the 1980s and early 1990s were important in reducing smoking. However, in 1994 there was a dramatic tobacco tax rollback by the federal government and five provinces in response to large-scale smuggling. In Ontario and Quebec, the retail price of cigarettes was effectively cut in half, adversely impacting smoking trends. Roughly 90 percent of cigarette contraband was originally manufactured in Canada, exported to the United States, and then smuggled back into Canada. In 1999, alleging conspiracy, the Canadian Government initiated attempts to recover damages from some manufacturers due to smuggling.

Beginning with Ottawa in 1977, hundreds of municipalities, and most provinces, have implemented laws restricting where smoking is permitted. Vancouver has been a leader in this area: a 1986 smoking bylaw addressed smoking in private workplaces, and, in 1995, restaurants were required to be smoke-free. The 1988 federal Nonsmokers' Health Act restricts smoking in federally regulated workplacesabout 10 percent of Canadian workplaces. Smoking was banned on all domestic flights of Canadian airlines in 1989, and all international flights in 1994.

Since 1994, federal law prohibits tobacco sales to persons under age 18 (a minimum national age of 16 had been in place since 1908). Vending machines are prohibited except in bars. "Self-service" retail displays are banned, as are mail order sales. Six provinces (British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland) have 19 as the minimum age, and Ontario and Nova Scotia have banned vending machines altogether. Several provinces had prohibited tobacco sales to minors starting in the 1890s.

By 2000, four provinces had prohibited tobacco sales in pharmacies, and some now require that tobacco retailers display signs with a health message. Since 1994, Ontario has prohibited smoking on school grounds. Since 1994, the federal government has imposed a profit surtax on tobacco manufacturers. In 1998, British Columbia required public disclosure of ingredients by brand, a world first, and in 1994 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health recommended implementation of plain packaging.

Lawsuits to recover tobacco-related medicare costs from the tobacco industry were filed by British Columbia (1998, re-filed 2000) and Ontario (2000). About ten individual and class action lawsuits have been filed against the industry since 1988.

Efforts to adopt tobacco control legislation have been marked by strong, well-funded opposition by tobacco manufacturers and allied groups. Health organizations, typically working in coalitions, have actively lobbied governments to enact measures. At the national level, prominent organizations include Health Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, and the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control.

Rob Cunningham

(see also: Smoking: Indoor Restrictions; Smuggling Tobacco; Tobacco Control; Tobacco Control Advocacy and PoliciesU.S.; Tobacco Control Advocacy and Policies in Developing Countries )


Cunningham, R. (1996). Smoke & Mirrors: The Canadian Tobacco War. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.

Grossman, M., and Price, P. (1992). Tobacco Smoking and the Law in Canada. Toronto: Butterworths.