Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health. It really wasn’t that long ago that smoking was a way of life. As the author points out in this piece on why people smoke, even doctors had cigarettes in their mouth while examining patients back then. The Surgeon General himself, Dr. Luther Terry, was a smoker until a few months before he made his speech in 1964. And for something so deeply ingrained into the culture, so addictive, and a major part of the economy – the report was given on a Saturday in fear of a negative stock market response – we really have seen a remarkable decline in smoking.
The antismoking campaign is a major public health success with few parallels in the history of public health. It is being accomplished despite the addictive nature of tobacco and the powerful economic forces promoting its use.
We now have a better understanding how diffusely tobacco affects the body. People who smoke are at higher risk of everything we worry about getting: cancer, heart attack, stroke, vascular problems leading to leg amputation, and looking older. I see many adult children of smokers who have never smoked, deterred by their parents’ habit. But many children and young adults continue to experiment with smoking, often thinking that they can quit anytime. Unfortunately, smoking continues to be glorified in other settings. Hollywood practically gives them away, somewhat reminiscent of cigarettes being provided to US soldiers in the past.
We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got more work to do.