A half-century of progress on smoking

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If you opened an edition of the Observer or Reporter in January 1964, you were certain to find many obituaries for people who died in their 50s or 60s, well short of what we would now consider a full, long life.


We can credit a half-century of advances in medical science for the fact that living into our 70s, 80s and 90s is now considered commonplace, along with safer workplaces, cleaner air, greater awareness of what constitutes a healthy diet and lower rates of smoking.


To borrow the phrase that was once used to promote Virginia Slims cigarettes to women, we’ve come a long way, baby.


Fifty years ago this month, as the nation was starting to shake off the shock and anguish of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and starting to get frenzied over the Beatles, the office of Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a report stating that yes, smoking was a prime contributor to lung and throat cancer. Though long suspected and hinted at it in other studies, the initial “Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health,” released Jan. 11, 1964, possessed a heft and authority that could not be brushed off by the tobacco industry or its most avid supporters.


On its 50th anniversary, some have described that 1964 report as perhaps the most consequential to have ever emerged from Washington, D.C., carrying the most profound, life-altering consequences.


Estimates have it that 8 million lives have been saved over the last five decades as a result of the report, as personal behavior changed and laws tightly circumscribed when and where people could smoke. Once the most ubiquitous and inexpensive of consumer goods – cigarettes were among the few things that were available in cheap abundance in austerity-ravaged Britain in the years after World War II, to cite one example – “smokes” are now fairly pricey, which has served as an additional deterrent.


For anyone born in the last 40 years or so, it’s hard to appreciate how all-pervasive smoking once was. Offices of all types were typically engulfed in a haze, as were restaurants, airplanes and just about every other place where people gathered. The smoke-befogged world depicted on the critically acclaimed television series “Mad Men” is not an inaccurate portrait of smoking’s once-widespread acceptance. Only in the 1980s, with an additional surgeon general’s report, was secondhand smoke confirmed to be harmful, and those who lit up were gradually banished to the outdoors for their nicotine fix.


“When people realized that smoking hurts more than just the smoker, that’s what led to change,” Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, recently told USA Today.


Even though many more people are alive and healthy today because they quit smoking or never picked up the habit, smoking still exacts a painful, deadly toll.


About 42 million Americans still smoke, and somewhere around 5 million people around the world die every year because of smoking. It’s the culprit in about 30 percent of cancer deaths, and updated findings have pegged it as being not just a mainspring of lung cancer, emphysema or heart disease, but the cause of a whole menu of other cancers, along with diabetes, ectopic pregnancy and erectile dysfunction.


The tobacco industry still has plenty of money to spread around to pick up new customers, to give to lawmakers who can tinker with regulations and to disseminate their own “research” so they can muddy the debate.


From our vantage point in the 21st century, there are a whole host of practices, customs and ways of thinking that once were considered routine that are now considered grossly unenlightened or unwise, whether it be various forms of racial or religious prejudice, bleeding people with leeches or locking people in asylums for “hysteria.”


Maybe by the time 2064 rolls around, smoking tobacco rolled in paper knowing that it will damage your health will seem similarly peculiar.


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