By Richard C. Wender, MD
Fifty years ago, on January 11, 1964, Luther Terry held a press conference to announce the results of the first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health, the most impactful public health document in history. The report laid to rest over a decade of debate about the health risks of smoking by definitively stating that smoking causes lung and laryngeal cancer in men, chronic bronchitis, and other diseases.
Research conducted by the American Cancer Society and other groups had already demonstrated the adverse health effects of smoking, but, until the Surgeon General's report, the tobacco industry had been successful in hiding the truth. The extraordinary methods used by the Surgeon General to ensure that the report was completely unbiased -- including allowing the tobacco industry to veto nominees to serve on the panel -- the thoroughness of the research, and the clarity of the conclusions, all led to one outcome: the end of the debate about the health risks of smoking and the launch of the true fight to end the use of tobacco products. The progress in the tobacco fight over the past 50 years represents one of the most successful, life-saving public health campaigns in our nation's history.
The public health victories, and the challenges
Forty-three percent of Americans smoked prior to the Surgeon General's report; 18% smoke today. Smoking in airplanes, restaurants, and places of employment has largely disappeared. We're now fully aware of the addictive nature of the nicotine in tobacco products, and the importance of preventing and treating that addiction. Tobacco executives were eventually forced to admit, before Congress and the country, that they were long aware of the addictive nature of their products as well as the harmful health effects.
We've learned that raising the cost of a pack of cigarettes is the single most effective way to reduce the number of people who start using tobacco products and the most effective way to promote quitting. Tobacco tax increases have been implemented in many states. As of 2009, the FDA was granted the authority to regulate tobacco products, although the tobacco industry has placed substantial roadblocks in the path of effective FDA action. The United States is not alone. Smoking rates in most high-resource ("Western") nations like England, Canada, and Australia have substantially declined, comparable to the progress that we've seen. We've witnessed 50 years of amazing progress; we truly do have much to celebrate.
And much to lament. More...