Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health: 50 Years of Progress

Today it’s an accepted truth that smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases, but this wasn’t always the case. Groups including the American Cancer Society worked with the government to launch the anti-tobacco movement 50 years ago in response to the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. Today the Surgeon General’s office has released a new report detailing the progress made in tobacco control in the US since that time, while calling for continued efforts to reduce smoking rates even more. 

The 2014 report from the Surgeon General’s office, The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress, shows that smoking prevalence among US adults has been reduced by half. Adult smoking rates have fallen from about 42% in 1965 to about 18% in 2012. Research led by Yale University estimates that 8 million deaths have been avoided through 50 years of stop-smoking efforts. And anti-tobacco efforts have led to a decrease in the rate of new lung cancer cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Despite the progress, more than 42 million American adults and more than 3.5 million middle and high school students continue to smoke. Cigarette smoking remains the leading preventable cause of cancer death in the US.

The report calls for a comprehensive public policy approach to tobacco control that includes mass media campaigns, smoke-free policies, age restrictions, price increases, and full access to proven quit-smoking treatments.

New evidence about the harms of smoking

Despite the drop in smoking prevalence, more than 20 million people have died from smoking and secondhand smoke in the past 50 years. If young adults continue to smoke at their current rate, 5.6 million Americans who are younger than 18 today will die prematurely from a smoking-related illness.

Previous Surgeon General’s reports have shown that smoking impacts nearly every organ of the body and that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. New evidence in the 2014 report supports these conclusions.

The new report also expands the list of diseases caused by smoking and secondhand smoke. For example, the 2014 report adds liver cancer and colon cancer to the list of cancer types already known to be caused by smoking: lung, oral cavity, esophagus, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), stomach, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix, and acute myeloid leukemia. In addition to lung cancer, coronary heart disease, and other conditions, the health problems linked to secondhand smoke now include stroke.

Other conclusions from the report

  • For the first time ever, women are as likely as men to die from lung cancer.
  • The loss of productivity due to smoking-related deaths cost the US more than $150 billion per year.
  • Patterns of tobacco use are changing, with more occasional use of cigarettes and an increase in use of other tobacco products, including cigars, hookahs, and e-cigarettes.
  • Advertising and promotions by tobacco companies cause adolescents and young adults to start smoking and keep smoking.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the federal government has a significant role to play in reducing Americans’ tobacco use, but needs an “all hands on deck” approach.

“Today, we’re asking Americans to join a sustained effort to make the next generation a tobacco-free generation,” said Sebelius. “This is not something the federal government can do alone. We need to partner with the business community, local elected officials, schools and universities, the medical community, the faith community, and committed citizens in communities across the country to make the next generation tobacco free.”

In a statement, John Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), said the two organizations “are leading the nationwide effort to end the tobacco epidemic through public education, scientific research and advocacy.”

“It is imperative that we establish a nationwide movement to make the tobacco endgame a reality and ensure that ending death and disease from tobacco use does not take another 50 years,” Seffrin said.

If you’re ready to quit

The American Cancer Society can help if you're ready to quit smoking or know someone who is. See our Guide to Quitting Smoking or call us at 1-800-227-2345. You don’t need to do it alone – getting help increases your chances of success.

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.

The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Published January 17, 2014. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, Atlanta, Ga.

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