It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Surgeon General Issues First Warning About Tobacco
50 years ago today something important happened. At least I think it's important. The U.S. Surgeon General officially declared smoking as dangerous and recommended against its use. Today this notion seems obvious and even silly. But those were different times.
In the unregulated days of tobacco, smoking was ubiquitous in society. Every public place had ash trays available and a smokey haze, courtesy of its patron smokers, rose to the rafters. Hollywood embraced smoking; cigarettes graced the hands of many stars and starlets on and off the screen. James Dean's lip dangling cigarette was defined as the epitome of cool. John Wayne and Ronald Reagan occupied full page magazine ads and television spots endorsing "their" brands. Even doctors weighed in speculating on "safer" and "less irritating" brands. The public bought it and tobacco flourished, unchecked. That is, until the mid '60's.
1964 - The Tobacco Report
On Saturday, January 11, 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry stood before 200 reporters and declared that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease. These were the highlights of a new report published by the Surgeon General's office, formulated by a committee of experts. The press conference was deliberately held on a Saturday when the stock marked was closed and the report didn't spare any punches - despite the attempted influence of the tobacco companies. The Surgeon General, when forming the committee, had actually gave veto power to big tobacco in choosing its members and in the end,10 scientists and doctors with no publicly declared opinion on tobacco use were charged with examining the evidence. Deliberately, half of them smoked. But in the end, the evidence against tobacco was indisputable.
What Now, Big Tobacco?
The tobacco companies of course reacted with strategic defense. Through the media, they attempted to sell the public on a "controversy" and "disagreement among the experts" as to whether smoking actually caused such diseases. In reality, there was no controversy. Still, change happened slowly.
The gauntlet was thrown down, the battle had begun and two major campaigns emerged in this struggle: advertising and legislation. Over the ensuing decades, both sides have spent untold fortunes and have enjoyed both victory and loss. In the end, however, tobacco has leads a difficult existence in contrast to its pre-1964 glory days.
Advertising - "You've come a long way, baby"
The battlefield of tobacco advertising has been fought in the big advertising firms on Madison Avenue and the legal arena of our nation's capitol ever since. Billions upon billions have been spent in these efforts to sway the American people and no facet seems to have been untouched. Most of us of age grew up "smoking" candy cigarettes and looking at the Joe Camel cartoon on billboards and magazine ads. Advertising permeated most magazines, gas station windows and even NASCAR hoods. Americans were "branded," aspiring to be "Kool" and sophisticated, "Camel smooth," a "Marlboro Man" or a progressive "Virginia Slim" woman.
Eventually though, the momentum of public opinion surrounding tobacco and the manipulative power of advertising changed and tighter regulations prevailed. Advertising venues and exposure to children were restricted. The Marlboro Man rode into the sunset, Joe Camel faded from the American landscape, and to add further insult, the Surgeon General won the right to display his warning on every pack of cigarettes.
However, while the majority embraced these changes as necessary and positive, not everyone was pleased. Not only were the tobacco companies unhappy, but many of their customers were as well. Smokers started to feel a war was being waged against them. Further regulations over the years have targeted "smokers' rights" and their pocket books. Many states have taken away a person's right to smoke in public places such as government buildings, shopping centers and restaurants. Taxes have made smoking expensive - from 35 cents in 1964 to over 6 dollars today. In response, big tobacco pays big bucks in attempts to lobby lawmakers to hold on to their dwindling rights, but it's a hard sell both from a moral and financial standpoint. Our government - both state and national - has developed a taste of the easy money levied by taxing tobacco and paid the Medicare/Medicaid bills for smoking-related disease.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (which had advertised cigarettes until 1953!) recently published an article highlighting the ramifications of the ball which began rolling in 1964 with the Surgeon General's report. It is estimated that 8 million Americans have avoided death as a result of anti-tobacco efforts since 1964. In addition, life expectancy has increased 30% due to these same anti-tobacco efforts. This is an incredible benchmark and stands as the most successful of all public health initiatives in our country. Still, it is figured that 17.7 million Americans have lost their lives in this half of a century due to smoking.
We've come a long way in recognizing the dangers of smoking. Even smokers know the consequences - no question about it. Smoking is yet the #1 cause of the most common sources of mortality in the U.S. - cancer and heart disease. And yet, 1 in 5 adult Americans continue to smoke. Are you one of the 20% or do you know someone who is? Have you recently switched to e-cigarettes? Trying to quit?