If you tell someone today that smoking leads to emphysema and chronic bronchitis, they'll probably wave you off with a yeah, yeah, yeah and silently hate you for presuming to know better than they do.
But in 1964 when the Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health issued its report on the effects of lighting up, the findings were the first "to definitively link smoking with lung cancer and heart disease," according to the CDC. Still, for decades many people continued to be ambivalent about the government's perceived overreach.
Well before that in 1956, American Cancer Society medical and scientific director Charles S. Cameron wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled, "Lung Cancer and Smoking: What We Really Know." He explained that some disagreement with new research came from smokers who "[mitigated] attention to the chief suspect" by stating that in the modern world, "if cigarette smoking is involved in causing lung cancer, it is obviously not the only cause."
This is true, but our interest at this point is not whether it is the only cause, but whether it is a cause of any moment at all. Since lung cancer affects some who have never smoked and since some smoke a lifetime with impunity, the operation of biological or constitutional factors appears likely. Atmospheric pollutants are in the picture too. But to minimize one factor because there may be many will not dispel the murk. Cigarette smoking is one of many factors under suspicion, and furthermore it is the only one over which the individual can exercise full and personal control.
Additionally, as Richard Knox reports in NPR, even medical professionals were wary about the government's intentions because "back then, public health rarely concerned itself with any hazards beyond infectious disease epidemics."
"There were some people in the profession who would say, 'You know, this is really between a patient and his or her doctor,'" Harvard historian Allan Brandt explained.
When Surgeon General Luther Terry wrote his foreword to the official report in 1964, he conceded that "few medical questions have stirred such public interest or created more scientific debate than the the tobacco-health controversy," but "that answers must be found." Those answers were: causal links to lung and laryngeal cancer in men, "probable cause" for lung cancer in women, and cardiovascular disease for all.
One year later, Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which mandated that cigarettes be issed with clear warning labels.
Some modern-day anti-smoking campaigns employ scare tactics to get the remaining 18 percent of Americans to quit the habit, but it obviously isn't easy. After all, even in the years following the Labeling and Advertising Act, advertisers still found ways to paint their product as desirable in some way, whether appealing to long-suffering middle-class consumers, or to cutting-edge smokers that might enjoy new filters and streamlined design.
Here's a look at some of the ads that appeared in issues of The Atlantic throughout the decades.