Study: 50 Years of Anti-Smoking Efforts Have Saved 8 Million Lives

Researchers from Yale University and colleagues estimate that 8 million deaths have been avoided since the first US Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964. This January marks the 50th anniversary of that report, which inspired efforts by the government, volunteer organizations (including the American Cancer Society), and the private sector to reduce cigarette smoking and other tobacco use through education, cigarette tax increases, smoke-free policies, media campaigns, marketing and sales restrictions, and quit-smoking programs.

“Surgeon General Luther Terry’s landmark report on smoking and health in 1964 called unprecedented attention to the deadly consequences of tobacco use and represented a turning point in tobacco control in this country,” said John R. Seffrin, PhD, CEO of the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), in a statement. “Since then, public education campaigns and efforts to enact proven tobacco control policies have helped to reduce the smoking rate from 42% to 19%, and with it the nation’s most preventable cause of death.”

The article was published in the January 8, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers created a model to compare actual national death rates from 1964 – 2012 with the estimated death rates if anti-tobacco efforts had not taken place. They found that 17.7 million deaths were linked to smoking from 1964 – 2012, about 8 million less than would have been expected had there been no anti-smoking efforts. According to the model, each person who avoided an early death by not smoking gained an estimated average of about 20 years of life.

The researchers also estimated the relationship between anti-tobacco efforts and life expectancy. The model credits anti-tobacco efforts with an increase of 2.3 years for men and 1.6 years for women after age 40. This represents almost a third of the total life expectancy gain for men and women from 1964 – 2012.

Despite the success of tobacco control efforts in reducing premature deaths in the US, smoking remains a significant public health problem. Nearly 1 in every 5 adults – 43.8 million Americans – still smoked cigarettes in 2011. As of 2010, there were also 13.2 million cigar smokers in the US, and 2.2 million who smoke tobacco in pipes. Tobacco use remains the single-largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the US, killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. It is known to cause many types of cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke, lung disease, and other health problems.

“The ultimate conquest of cancer is as much a matter of public policy as it is a scientific and medical challenge,” said Seffrin. “Continued strong implementation of proven tobacco control policies is paramount to our ability to put an end to death, disease and disability from tobacco.”

The American Cancer Society’s Guide to Quitting Smoking has many tools and tips to help smokers beat the urge to smoke and to help nonsmokers encourage loved ones to quit. If you’re a smartphone user, get the new Quit For Life mobile app from Alere Wellbeing, available for iPhone and Android.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Tobacco Control and the Reduction in Smoking-Related Premature Deaths in the United States, 1964-2012. Published January 8, 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. First author Theodore R. Holford, PhD, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

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