Fifty years ago, Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry, made a bombshell announcement: “The strongest relationship between cigarette smoking and health is in the field of lung cancer. There is a very strong relationship, and probably a causal relationship, between heart disease and cigarette smoking.”
It was the first time a surgeon general said that smokers had a 70% greater chance of death and that heavy smokers were 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers.
The landmark report launched one of the biggest public health campaigns in U.S. history, including warning labels on cigarettes, cigarette advertising banned on TV and radio, graphic public service announcements, and anti-smoking laws.
Now a new study in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association — which has devoted its entire issue to tobacco and smoking — estimates that tobacco control efforts since the first Surgeon General’s report have added 20 years of life for 8 million Americans. Without tobacco control, half of those Americans would have died before the age of 65.
“The report and subsequent tobacco control efforts represent the most dramatic and successful public health campaign in modern history, in terms of benefit to the entire population,” says the study’s senior author, David Levy, a population scientist at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The authors used data from the National Health Interview Surveys to estimate what life without tobacco control would be like, and compared it to smoking and life expectancy trends since 1964.
They also found that tobacco control has extended life expectancy by 2 years for men, and more than 1.5 years for women over the age of 40.
That first surgeon general’s report was a flash point for many Americans. As Stanton Glantz, professor of tobacco control at the University of California, explains: “The surgeon general’s report was the beginning of changes in public attitudes in smoking, which began to lay the foundation for a lot of the progress that we’ve seen today.”
Warnings began appearing on cigarette packages across the country. The first simply said: “Smoking could be hazardous to your health.”
Over the years, the warnings have become more direct. In 1970, the label read, “The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to our health.”
Today, warning labels flat-out say: “Cigarettes are addictive”; “Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease”; and “Smoking can kill you.”
Today, almost half of all U.S. residents are covered by some sort of indoor smoking ban, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while progress has been made, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta that there is still work to do.
“Well, it’s kind of a glass half empty, glass half full story,” Frieden said. “On the one hand, half as high of a percentage of adults smoke, on the other hand it remains the leading preventable cause of death in this country, and if you smoke, quitting is by far the single most important thing you can do to improve your health.”
More than 440,000 Americans still die from smoking every year, according to the CDC. And approximately 3,900 people under the age of 17 will pick up a cigarette for the first time this year.