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.
In the past fifty years, tremendous progress has been made. Smoking rates among adults in this country have dropped from 42 percent to 18 percent, and many communities have smoke-free laws that prohibit smoking in public places. Research estimates that 8 million lives have been saved in the United States and life expectancy has increased by 30 percent as a result of tobacco control measures since the release of the report.
We’ve made great strides in lowering smoking rates and saving lives. But more work needs to be done. Tobacco use remains the number one cause of preventable death. More than 400,000 Americans die each year from smoking.
It’s time for a new national commitment to end the tobacco epidemic for good. We can end this epidemic by more fully and effectively implementing proven strategies that have shown to reduce smoking rates and prevent our youth from lighting up: strong public policy, high tobacco prices, hard-hitting educational media and robust tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
By doing what we know works, we can continue to lower smoking rates even further and ultimately eliminate the death and disease tobacco use causes. The time is now.
We can’t afford to wait another fifty years.