50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s report on smoking

Pack of cigarettes

When I was a kid, it seemed like everybody smoked … at the dinner table, in the grocery store, even in movie theaters. Ashtrays were everywhere. Everything and everybody smelled like cigarette smoke. If someone gave me a hug, the smell was nauseating. Thinking about it now still makes my stomach turn.

But in 1964, something happened that started a revolutionary change regarding cigarette smoking. On Jan. 11, Luther L. Terry, M.D., surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service, issued a report saying cigarettes kill. Dr. Terry told the reporters gathered that day, many of whom were smoking, "The strongest relationship between cigarette smoking and health is in the field of lung cancer." In addition, he said, "There is a very strong relationship, and probably a causal relationship, between heart disease and cigarette smoking."

Soon after that day 50 years ago, warning labels appeared on every pack of cigarettes. That’s about the time my dad stopped smoking. He got the message. It took my mom another 20 years to quit, after one of my daughters asked Grandma why she “smelled funny.”

The addictive nature of nicotine made it hard for my mom and millions of others to kick the habit. The Journal of the American Medical Society (JAMA) reports that 17.7 million Americans have died from smoking-related causes since 1964. But on the positive side, JAMA estimates 8 million lives have been saved because of that initial surgeon general’s report and the warnings that followed. 

In 1964, 48 percent of all Americans smoked. Today, the percentage of people who smoke is down to roughly 20 percent, but that’s still one out of every five. Kentuckians, in particular, don’t seem to be getting the message.

In his State of the Commonwealth address in January 2014, Gov. Steve Beshear said, “Tobacco use is the single-biggest factor negatively impacting our health.” He added, “Kentucky ranks 50th in smoking, which contributes to nation-leading rates of heart disease, respiratory illnesses and other chronic diseases.” That’s why the governor is once again supporting comprehensive, statewide smoke-free legislation. His goal is to cut Kentucky’s smoking rate by 10 percent by 2018. 

Just think of the additional lives that could be saved if more people quit smoking. How many more moms and dads, sisters and brothers could live years longer without going through the misery of lung cancer treatments and/or heart disease? 

One of the authors of the JAMA report said, “Tobacco control has increased U.S. life expectancy by 30 percent since 1964, more than any other public health or medical measure.” So what part of the surgeon general’s warning do some of us still not understand? Now that I’m a grownup, I know my mom and dad loved my children and me enough to kick the cigarette habit once and for all. Won’t you? For more information, see www.Smokefree.gov.

What is your lung cancer risk?

Take a free risk assessment and see if you qualify for a lung CT screening. For more information about lung CT screenings at Norton Cancer Institute, call (502) 629-LUNG (5864).

–Jackie Hays