31 Tobacco Reports Later, Are We Heeding the Warnings?

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Tobacco Use After the Surgeon General’s First ReportNow, 50 years after the first report on the health risks of tobacco smoking by the Surgeon General of the United States was published in 1964, a new report, recently released by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), is taking stock of the current situation in the U.S. regarding the health impacts of smoking on the American population.

Although smoking rates in the U.S. have dropped approximately 50% since 1964, tobacco smoking remains the largest cause of preventable death in the U.S. today. Currently, the estimates place the smoking rate at 20% of the entire American population. And there are far too many people dying of preventable diseases completely attributable to smoking! The list of chronic diseases associated with tobacco use has continually grown, making it responsible for $280 billion in associated healthcare costs and economic impacts annually. This doesn’t even address the loss of quality of life and increased morbidity commonly associated with chronic smoking.

Let’s look at some sobering statistics. Since 1964, approximately 20 million Americans have died from smoking-related illnesses. Another 2.5 million non-smoking adults have died from the effects of second-hand smoke. All of these fatalities were completely avoidable!

The real question at this point must be: what have we learned from this experience?

In the first report published in 1964, the deleterious effects of smoking were well-known. Diseases like cancer, heart disease, and chronic lung disease were attributed to tobacco use.

As far back as 1954, the tobacco industry was trying to prevent any public relations damage by issuing a press release, stating, “We believe the products we make are not injurious to health” and “We always have and always will cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public health.”

Above and beyond these contentions, the tobacco industry blamed the increase in lung cancer incidence on air pollution, asbestos, and chemical exposure. This was despite an exhaustive research report, detailed in the 1964 surgeon general’s report, that clearly placed the blame on the rapid rise in smoking throughout the American population.

Wow… Enough said!

So what does the population data actually tell us?

In 1930, approximately 3,000 people living in the U.S. died from lung cancer. In 1950, this number had grown to 18,000. By the time this report on smoking was published in 1964, there were 41,000 deaths reported in the U.S. from lung cancer! At this time, the surgeon general had this to say regarding the increase in lung cancer incidence: “This extraordinary rise has not been recorded for cancer of any other site… Although part of the growing trend could be attributed to improvements in diagnosis and the changing demographics of the population at large, the evidence leaves little doubt that a true increase in lung cancer has taken place.”

What was also established at the time was a very large increase in heart disease mortality, almost doubling between 1940 and 1964. Similarly, the number of people who died from chronic lung diseases increased from a mere 2,300 in 1945 to 15,000 by 1962!

Since 1964, there have been 31 reports submitted by the surgeon general regarding the health implications of tobacco use. Although the newest report has indicated that more needs to be done to combat the effects of smoking on the U.S. population, current trends in tobacco use have indicated that approximately five to six million children and teens will die from future tobacco-related illnesses if this is not curtailed.

Sources for Today’s Article:

Nelson, R., “Fifty Years On, Half As Many Americans Now Smoke, but…” Medscape web site, April 14, 2014; http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/823600.

“50th Anniversary of the Surgeon General’s Smoking and Health Report,” American Association for Cancer Research web site; http://www.aacr.org/home/public–media/science-policy–government-affairs/science-policy–government-affairs-committee/tobacco-and-cancer/surgeon-general-report-50th-anniversary.aspx, last accessed April 22, 2014.

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