Fifty-year anti-tobacco battle example of good public policy

As anti-government sentiment grows in this country — thanks, in large part, to the tea party — the 50th anniversary of a landmark report on smoking is a reminder that good public policy does stand the test of time.

Indeed, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says 8 million lives have been saved since the anti-smoking campaign was launched with warning labels on cigarette packs.

The battle was prompted by a report released on Jan. 11, 1964, by then U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry that said smoking causes illness and death.

Terry also strongly advocated government action.

At the time, 42 percent of adults in America smoked.

Today, the smoking rate of 18 percent translates to more than 43 million.

Public health officials point out that smoking is still far and away the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. And despite the numerous anti-smoking initiatives, including states such as Ohio banning smoking in public places, large numbers of Americans will light up for decades to come.

But without the commitment of Surgeon General Terry and his successors to not only dissuade adults from smoking, but to keep cigarettes away from minors, the number of addicts today — and the incidence of smoking related diseases and deaths — would be many times greater.


Here are some key events in the fight over tobacco during the past 50 years, as selected by the Associated Press:

1964: U.S. Surgeon General report concludes smoking causes lung cancer.

1965: Warning labels required on cigarette packs.

1971: TV and radio commercials for cigarettes banned.

1972: Airlines provide no-smoking sections.

1987: Aspen, Colo., becomes first U.S. city to ban smoking in restaurants.

1988: Smoking banned on short domestic airline flights.

1998: Forty-six states reach $206 billion settlement with cigarette makers.

2000: Smoking prohibited on international flights.

2009: Food and Drug Administration authorized to regulate tobacco products.

The Terry report has been called one of the most important documents in U.S. public-health history, and on its 50th anniversary officials are not only rolling out new anti-smoking campaigns but reflecting on what the nation did right that day.

Nonetheless, despite all the publicity surrounding the dangers of smoking, public opinion polls surprisingly show that a majority of Americans do not support a total ban, even though 82 percent know that smoking is “very harmful” for adults, while 13 percent say it’s “somewhat harmful,” and 4 percent say it’s “not too or not at all harmful.”

It is noteworthy that smokers are less likely to consider smoking “very harmful.”

It is clear that while enormous progress has been made not only to change habits but prevent young people from taking up smoking, there is still a public health epidemic.

An estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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