It’s part of the Government of Canada’s efforts to convince adults who smoke to quit, and discourage young people and non-smokers from taking up the habit. The aim is to cut the country’s tobacco use to 5 per cent of the population by 2035.
The new warnings must be bilingual and will appear on all regular-sized cigarettes and other tobacco products by the end of April, 2024.
The labels feature statements such as: “Cigarettes damage your organs,” “Poison in every puff,” and “Cigarettes cause leukemia.”
The push to curb tobacco use in Canada began in June, 1963, when then-Health Minister Judy LaMarsh rose in the House of Commons to relay evidence around the correlation between cigarette smoke and lung cancer. Ms. LaMarsh was the one of first public officials in the world to publicly acknowledge that smoking kills.
Since the 1960s, when more than half of all Canadians smoked, that rate has declined sharply. As of 2020, just one in 10 Canadians smoke cigarettes. Despite the drop in consumption, some 48,000 Canadians die from smoking each year.
Canada can claim many global anti-smoking firsts: The first to ban smoking on domestic (1987) and international flights (1988); the first host of a smoke-free Olympics (1988); the first photo or graphic health warnings on packages (2001), and the first province/state in the world to ban smoking on patios (Newfoundland in 2005), the first country to ban flavoured cigarettes and cigarillos (in 2010, with the exception of menthols; something Nova Scotia did in 2015).
Here’s a look at other measures implemented to reduce smoking in Canada.
Ban on advertising
One of the earliest moves to curb smoking, a House committee in 1969 recommended a ban on tobacco advertising. The industry implemented a voluntary code to remove advertising from television and radio (though companies would sponsor events to get around the ban). By 1988, federal legislation was adopted to ban tobacco advertising (the year Canada hosted a smoke-free Olympics and the WHO organized the first World No Tobacco Day). The 1997 Tobacco Act put in place strong restrictions on tobacco advertising and promotion. By 2003, sponsorship of sport and arts events was also banned.
Ban on indoor smoking
The City of Ottawa became the first municipality in Canada to implement a smoking bylaw with its 1976 restriction on smoking in indoor public places. In 1994, the fast-food chain McDonald’s announced all their company-owned restaurants in North America would go smoke-free. In 1996, Vancouver went a step further, requiring all restaurants be 100-per-cent smoke-free. Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories and Nunavut banned smoking in all bars and restaurants in 2004. Smoking is now banned in all indoor public places, transit and workplaces (including bars, restaurants and casinos) across the country.
Ban on smoking on planes and in cars
In 1982, smoking was banned on all domestic airline flights of two hours or less, with a ban on international flights in 1994. Meanwhile, Ontario was the first province to prohibit smoking in cars with children under 16 present. As of 2015, that’s the case in all provinces.
Photo warnings on tobacco packages
With the Federal Tobacco Products Information Regulations, Canada became the first country in the world to require graphic pictures warning about the negative health effects of tobacco directly on the package. The rules, which came into effect in 2001, required graphics to cover 50 per cent of the package, front and back.
The legislation was challenged by tobacco companies on the grounds of free expression, but ultimately upheld in a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2007 (the same decision that upheld the ban on tobacco companies sponsoring arts and sporting events).
“[T]he benefits flowing from larger warnings are clear, while the detriments to the manufacturers’ expressive interest in creative packaging are small,” the court wrote.
Additional regulations increasing the size of the warnings to 75 per cent of packages came into effect in 2012. That same year, Canada was ranked fourth of 198 countries for its cigarette warning labels. Australia, which by then already had in place plain-packaging rules for tobacco products, was judged to be the strictest in the world. In 2020, plain-packaging rules – which research shows have helped reduce smoking rates – came into effect in Canada. All cigarette packages are made in a colour known as “drab brown” and are devoid of all other colours and logos. Health experts say Canada’s rules are now the toughest in the world.
There are now 21 countries and territories with plain packaging rules, and 134 countries and territories require image warnings on cigarette packages.
Ban on retail display of cigarettes
Starting with Saskatchewan in 2001, the provinces began to prohibit the visible display of tobacco products in retail stores. A challenge to Saskatchewan’s legislation made its way to the Supreme Court in 2005, where the court ruled unanimously to uphold the law banning advertising, display or promotion of tobacco or related products in any store open to children. At the time, the Canadian Cancer Society called it a decisive loss for the tobacco industry. In his written opinion, Judge John Major said the law sought to combat “a public health evil.”
By 2008, laws against the display of cigarettes in convenience stores were in place across the country. Display bans came into effect in Ontario and Quebec in May, 2008. The ban required retailers to conceal cigarettes in drawers underneath the counter, or behind a series of opaque wall coverings to prevent children from being exposed to images of cigarettes, and the cost of failing to do so was significant. In Ontario, for example, retailers who failed to comply faced fines of up to $150,000.
In addition to taxation increases, Canada also raised the legal age to purchase tobacco (from 16 to 18, and in many places, 19).
Canada was the first country in the world to ban flavoured cigarettes (except menthol) and little cigars in 2010. In 2015, Nova Scotia became the first province to entirely ban menthol (which is found naturally in mint and can also be produced synthetically in labs and is used to numb the harshness of cigarettes) tobacco products. (Menthol-flavoured cigarettes were among the most popular ways for young people to start smoking.) The province would also be the first, in 2019, to move to ban flavoured vapes.