The U.S. Surgeon General’s report on The Health Consequences of Smoking reminds us just how far we’ve come over the last 50 years in our efforts to control tobacco use and prevent our youth from lighting up. Smoking rates have more than halved since 1964 (42 percent compared to 18 percent in 2012). Thanks to our comprehensive tobacco control programs at the national and local levels,eight million Americans have been saved from premature death, and their lives have been extended by an average of almost 20 years.
In the last 50 years, we’ve made tremendous progress in reducing the burden of tobacco. Here are some milestones from the last 50 years in tobacco control:
January 11, 2014 marks an important milestone in public health—the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. That landmark report was the first to definitely link smoking with lung cancer and heart disease.
Dr. Luther Terry, the U.S. Surgeon General who issued the report, said, “[It] hit the country like a bombshell. It was front page news and a lead story on every radio and television station in the United States and many abroad.” The report spurred landmark legislation that required warning labels on cigarettes and prohibited tobacco companies from advertising their deadly products on television. By 1969, 70 percent of Americans believed smoking caused cancer, and 60% believed it caused heart disease.
Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, said that no other single report has had this large an effect on public health.
If you live in an apartment and your neighbor smokes, you may be exposed to secondhand smoke. According to the Surgeon General, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. All apartment dwellers can encourage their buildings to adopt a smoke-free policy.
Almost 500,000 NYC children and adults are involuntarily exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes. They inhale their neighbor’s cigarette smoke as it seeps through cracks and vents. Secondhand smoke can never be isolated. If you live near a smoker, secondhand smoke becomes your constant companion—and your child’s. On average, up to 60% of the air in multi-unit buildings is shared.
Last week, the Second US Circuit of Appeals court last week ruled in favor of Big Tobacco who aggressively markets their deadly, addictive products to youth. In NYC, the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City and our many community partners work to protect the public health, but as a result of this ruling, retailers won’t be required to display educational warning signs on the harmful health effects of smoking.
The proposed graphic health warnings were first introduced by the NYC Department of Health in 2009 and were intended to show New Yorkers what cigarettes can do to you. “These warning signs will help persuade smokers to quit and show children why they shouldn’t start to smoke,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley at the time. But Big Tobacco filed suit in June 2010 claiming the signs violated their rights. And now the court has defended their right to promote deadly products instead of allowing public health officials to teach and warn our children.
According to the Surgeon General ninety percent of adults smokers started before the age of 18. That is a sobering statistic and tells us that Big Tobacco’s marketing works. In New York state alone, Big Tobacco spends $1 million a day on marketing. Retail stores are one of the last places where the tobacco industry can target our youth. Why does Big Tobacco get to control the conversation with their ads in these stores? Why can’t the dangers of smoking and tobacco use also be clearly communicated as well?
As we wait for the final vote count on Proposition 29, a measure that would add a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes in California, we know that price increases are a proven way to bring down smoking rates. In fact, it is such an effective strategy, that even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong are supporting the initiative. Not surprisingly, Big Tobacco has spent almost $48 million in California to “interfere” with the $1 tax measure. We hope they do not win, but if they do, we will continue our fight to protect youth from smoking.