National Consumers League

Win for regulation: 50 year-tobacco use rates show drastic decline

I recently wrote about the miraculous number of lives saved by tough auto safety regulations. Some states today are recording the lowest traffic fatalities ever. Why? Because of safety devices (seatbelts, airbags, etc.) and designs that were lobbied for by consumer advocates like Ralph Nader, Joan Claybrook, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, CARS,  and Consumer Reports/Consumers Union beginning in the 1960s.

Now I’m writing about another miraculous success story also related directly to a sustained public health education and awareness campaign. Fifty years ago – in 1964 – the US surgeon general issued a groundbreaking report on smoking and health. The paper offered definitive proof – based on thousands of studies -that smoking causes lung cancer and is linked to other serious diseases. Tobacco companies had spent years denying and obfuscating the evidence. Research since then has shown that tobacco can cause or exacerbate a wide range of ailments, including heart disease, stroke, multiple kinds of cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, asthma and diabetes, and can cause disease in those who inhale the secondary smoke – including wait staff in restaurants and bars and children of smokers.

This sustained campaign to discourage Americans from smoking –including high taxes on cigarettes, banning smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces, airports, airplanes, trains, and other enclosed spaces, requiring smoking in restricted areas, curbs on advertising, banning sales to minors, penalizing smokers with higher health care premiums, and local and state programs for smoking cessation  – all have  helped to dramatically reduce smoking in the US.

I’m one of those who had a two pack a day habit so I know about smoking. It was incredibly difficult to quit – I did it four or five times for months or years at a time but got hooked again immediately upon taking the first puff.

I did finally call it quits and don’t dare come close to a cigarette today. Why did I quit finally? Lots of reasons, including that I felt shockingly short of breath when going up just a few stairs, the ever escalating cost, and the unpopularity of puffing away and polluting the air I was sharing with colleagues and friends. Not to mention it’s about the stupidest thing you can do, given all the terrible health conditions caused by and exacerbated by smoking. Thirty years after quitting, I also am happy to report that all of the six members of my immediate family who smoked back then have all kicked the habit.

So we are part of the success story. The percentage of American adults who smoke dropped from 42 percent in 1965 to 18 percent in 2012. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that tobacco control measures adopted since 1964 have saved eight million Americans from premature death and extended their lives by an average of almost 20 years.

However, we still have 44 million smokers. To tackle this challenge, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have called for a new national commitment to drive down smoking among adults to less than 10 percent over the next decade. The groups also want to protect all Americans from secondhand smoke within five years by having every state enact laws against smoking in all workplaces, bars and restaurants; and ultimately eliminate death and disease caused by tobacco.

The power of the tobacco industry is a challenge. It spends $8 billion a year to market cigarettes and other tobacco products in the US, marketing too often aimed at young people.

The industry also enjoys profits from heavy smoking prevalent in so many developing countries. My recent visits to China and Cuba underscored the ubiquitous use of tobacco around the world. Happily we’re spoiled in the US by being relative smoke free in communal places.

Meanwhile, back in the US, many groups are rededicating themselves to driving rates of smoking down to under 10 percent. Federal, state, and local government health officials are working alongside these groups. So there we have it – another victory for sensible regulation and here’s to the millions of lives saved as a result.