On this day in 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a definitive report that linked smoking cigarettes with lung cancer. The 150,000-word report was assembled by 10 scientists (half of them were smokers) and released on a Saturday, partly out of fear that the findings might disrupt the stock market. Decades later, the national battle to curb smoking still smolders.
What Americans knew about the hazards of cigarettes in 1964 was largely unsettled, thanks to a publicity offensive waged by tobacco companies. Since the early 1950s, studies had asserted that smoking led to fatal illnesses, but cigarette manufacturers didn't go gently, calling the claims inconclusive and citing the development of filters as a means to keep toxins from reaching smokers. Aficionados of the AMC show Mad Men might recall the pilot episode's key tension revolves around the development of a (pre-1964) strategy to combat the claims that cigarettes were poisonous. "It's toasted!" becomes the chosen maxim of obfuscation.
But the Terry Report changed all of that. "In comparison with non-smokers, average male smokers of cigarettes have approximately a 9-to-10-fold risk of developing lung cancer and heavy smokers at least a 20-fold risk," the report read. At that point, over 42 percent of American adults were smokers.
In addition to listing all the dangers and diseases associated with smoking, Terry also took the extraordinary step of calling for government involvement in the issue. Across the decades, the national effort to separate Americans from their cigarettes has manifested itself in the creation of warning labels on packs of cigarettes (1965), the launching of free anti-smoking PSAs on television (1967), the creation of smoking sections in restaurants, airplanes, and elsewhere in the 1970s, and the banning of cigarette advertisements. Eventually, full smoking bans took root as well.
Today, the national percentage of smokers has dropped to 18 percent. That number still comprises 44 million smokers and, along with it, 440,000 pre-mature deaths, $96 billion in smoking-related medical costs, and $97 billion in lost productivity because of illness. Recently, the fight has also reached into the realm of e-cigarettes, which, despite being considered an aid to help smokers quit, have recently become the target of smoking bans in places like New York City, New Jersey, and Utah.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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