Guest Column: The 50-year war on smoking

Los Angeles Times

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, Jan. 10:

The 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking — the first official acknowledgment by the federal government that smoking kills — was an extraordinarily progressive document for its time. It swiftly led to a federal law that restricted tobacco advertising and required the now-familiar warning label on each pack of cigarettes. Yet, there was nothing truly surprising about the conclusion of the report.

Throughout the 1950s, scientists had been discovering various ways in which smoking took a toll on people’s health. Intense lobbying by the tobacco industry slowed the U.S. attack on smoking. Even when then-Surgeon General Luther Terry convened a panel before the report was issued to make sure its findings were unimpeachable, he felt compelled to allow tobacco companies to rule out any members of whom they disapproved. Saturday marks the report’s 50th anniversary.

The intervening decades have seen remarkable progress against smoking in the United States, despite the stubborn efforts of the tobacco industry. During those years, though, independent research tied smoking and secondhand smoke to an ever-wider range of ailments. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking causes cancer of the lungs, larynx, bladder, bone marrow, blood, esophagus, kidneys and several other organs. It increases the risk of stroke, heart disease and cataracts. It can damage fetuses, weaken bones and harm teeth and gums. The list goes on.

The growing body of evidence bolstered important policies to combat tobacco use and the injury to nonsmokers barraged by the damaging effects of secondhand smoke. In the 1970s, during hearings on legislation to curb smoking in public buildings, some legislators puffed away even as speakers described the asthma attacks they sometimes suffered from secondhand smoke. Limits on cigarette advertisements, rules that prevented sales to minors and new taxes on cigarettes helped bring smoking rates down. In 1964, 42 percent of Americans smoked. Half the people on the panel that produced the surgeon general’s report smoked. Today, the U.S. smoking rate is 18 percent. Teen smoking rates fell to below 10 percent after the federal tax on cigarettes was increased by 62 cents a pack in 2009. As smoking rates have declined, lung cancer rates have fallen as well.

One study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. estimated that 8 million premature deaths from all smoking-related causes have been prevented since the surgeon general’s report was issued in 1964. Despite the good news, smoking is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in this country. The tactics of tobacco companies continue to hold the nation back. Knowing how heedless of our well-being they have been all along, we should ignore their ads and their lobbyists and take the following steps:

—Raise tobacco taxes. According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Surgeon General, every 10 percent increase in the cost of smoking leads to a 4 percent drop in smoking rates.

—Place increased emphasis on reducing teen smoking. If there’s one thing all Americans should agree on, it’s that minors should be protected from smoking. According to the American Lung Association, more than two-thirds of adult smokers developed the habit as teenagers. Studies have shown that many retailers don’t check identification and sell even when the ID shows the buyer to be underage.

—Push for indoor-smoking restrictions in all states. It may surprise Californians to learn that some states lack smoking bans even in workplaces, bars and restaurants. Smoking is and should remain a personal choice among adults, but the nonsmokers around them have the right not to be sickened by the choices of others.

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