Saturday is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest, and most important, U.S. public health achievements. But while the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health led to an unprecedented improvement of the nation’s overall health, public health groups meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., delivered a clear message: We must do more.
“Tobacco remains this nation’s No. 1 preventable cause of premature death and disease,” said Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matthew L. Myers at a National Press Club conference. “Unlike so many problems we face we know how to end the tobacco epidemic. We have the tools; we know what policies and programs work. We simply haven’t implemented them nearly enough.”
Currently, smoking is responsible for one in five U.S. deaths. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health organizations set bold goals to aggressively attack the epidemic, including reducing adult smoking rates from 18 percent to 10 percent or less within the next 10 years, protecting all Americans from secondhand smoke within the next five years and eliminating the death and disease caused by tobacco use.
While smoking remains a public health crisis, it pales in comparison to 50 years ago. In 1961 APHA and other public health groups sent a letter to then-President John F. Kennedy calling for a national commission on smoking.
Less than a year later recently appointed Surgeon General Luther Terry announced he would conduct a review of the “smoking question,” according to Dick Woodruff of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. His resulting report and tobacco control initiatives led a cultural shift in smoking habits, leading to health breakthroughs including:
- a 58 percent reduction in adult smoking rates from 1965 to 2012 (42.4 to 18.0 percent) and a 55 percent reduction in smoking among high school seniors from 1997 to 2013 (36.5 to 16.3 percent);
- 8 million Americans who avoided premature death as a result of tobacco control efforts launched by the report;
- since 1964 men and women over 40 are living 7.8 and 5.5 years longer, respectively, with 30 percent of the gain directly attributable to tobacco control; and
- smoke-free laws protecting 49.1 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, compared to less than 1 percent in 1996.
Smoke-free laws have resulted in substantial health benefits. A recent study of the North Carolina Smoke-free Restaurants and Bars Law showed marketed improvements in the state’s indoor air quality along with declines in weekly emergency room visits and risk of ER visits among asthma sufferers.
“While we’ve made great progress, there is clearly more work to be done,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin in a statement. “This anniversary marks an important public health success, yet we need to make sure the victory we celebrate today is not hollow.”