Where There’s Smoke … There’s Cancer

America’s treatment of Native Americans, from the French and Indian War, to the countless broken treaties, to the forced re-settlement of many famous tribes in the 1830s (the infamous “Trail of Tears”), to the present day, has been nothing short of shameful.

But one might say that Native Americans got some revenge for that treatment, because it was while observing them smoking tobacco in pipes in the 1600s that American colonists got the idea of growing tobacco as a cash crop. The result of that unfortunate business decision is an estimated 440,000 deaths each year in America from smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer, throat cancer, bronchitis and emphysema.  Smoking also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, ulcers and artery disease.

Which is why, this week (Jan. 11) in 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report, the “Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health,” that found, among other things, that “Cigarette smoking is a health hazard of such sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action.”

To give some idea of how hooked America was on cigarettes at that time, and how sensational Terry’s report was, the decision was made to release the report on a Saturday so that Wall Street would have time to absorb the news.  What’s more, the report was released to reporters in a sealed-off room in the State Department, literally forcing them to read the report in its entirety, and allowing Dr. Terry to answer questions, before they could phone their editors with their stories.

When those stories were filed, the report was a front-page headline for a week, and in its wake “appropriate remedial action” was taken in the form of a multi-pronged, anti-smoking campaign by private and public sector groups of all stripes. Congress passed laws banning cigarette advertising in the broadcast media, while requiring health warnings on all cigarette packs.  Government and voluntary health organizations funded studies on the harmful effects of smoking and helped fund anti-smoking advertising campaigns that chiefly targeted young smokers.  Lawsuits against tobacco companies became commonplace, and even non-smokers became more assertive about their rights not to be subjected to “second hand” smoke, whose harmful effects were scientifically proven.

In sum, Terry’s report galvanized America, and some 50 years later, despite tobacco’s powerful addictive properties, more than half of all living adults who ever smoked have quit, making the anti-smoking campaign arguably the most successful public health campaign of the 20th Century.

Yours truly being one of the converts. Having watched both of my parents die from smoking, I concluded in 1980 that inhaling a product whose byproducts are nicotine, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, aldehydes and organic tar compounds was probably a bad idea.