Next week is the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking U.S. Surgeon General’s report on cigarettes. This report was the result of more than a decade of studies and research into the growing suspicion of a connection between smoking and lung cancer.
A lot of this is documented pretty well in an excellent book called “The Cigarette Century.” The report was fought big time through political channels by the tobacco industry, trying to get it suppressed.
The report issued by Surgeon General Luther Terry came out on Jan. 11, 1964, and along with the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry, was a major turning point in the fight against smoking. Now, there was a highly official report, signed off by the U.S. Surgeon General, unequivocally with no subtleties — smoking causes lung cancer. And that cigarette filters did nothing to lower the risk.
Think about that for a moment. No if, ands or butts. There is no doubt. For years, the cigarette industry had been working feverishly to create “doubt” about the science (the same techniques are used by global warming and evolution denialists today — feed the “doubt.”).
It was such a momentous report that it was actually released on a Saturday for fear that it would devastate the stock market.
Think about 1964 … smoking ubiquitous on TV, in movies, in almost every workplace. Ashtrays jammed with cigarettes in hotel lobbies, restaurants, work desks, cars, everywhere. There were no smokefree areas, not in restaurants, not in airplanes, not even in hospitals. The smell was everywhere. Cigarettes sold in vending machines.
My how times have changed since 1964. But, it changed slowly.
A few years after the report, the warnings arrived on packs of cigarettes.
You would have thought this would have been the end of the tobacco industry with two or three years, but no, incredibly, smoking continued to thrive and smoking rates didn’t really start to drop until the 70s, and then didn’t really drop all that dramatically until the 80s, nearly 20 years later.
Why? The industry fought back. Afterward, the tobacco industry poured more money than ever into its PR machine and its advertising, trying to counteract the influence of the report. Advertising was aimed at women with a series of new cigarettes marketed specifically for women. Then, came Joe Camel, enticing what the industry called “new smokers” (The industry’s euphemism for teen smokers) by making smoking look more cool than ever. And for a time, they were successful.
The smoking rate was about 43 percent in 1964 (and more than 50 percent for men). After the Surgeon General’s report came out, the smoking rate for women and teenagers actually went up for several years, but finally started to drop in the 70s. Around this time, cigarette ads were banned from TV and vending machines disappeared (They were finally banned by the FDA in 2010.). The dramatic drop-off was between 1970 and 1980, with a second, less dramatic drop-off after 2000. From 1990 to 2000, the smoking rate remained stubbornly persistent, dropping only from 25.5 percent to 23.3 percent (the result of a higher teen smoking rate than the 60s and 70s … thanks Joe Camel). Today, the smoking rate is about 19 percent.
What’s more. The attitudes toward smoking changed — dramatically. Smoking is no longer seen by society as “cool” or “hip.” Now, it’s seen as a dirty habit, something to be embarrassed about. Smokes are assigned to the alleys outside bars, in all kinds of weather. It’s no longer “fun” to smoke.
It took about 40 years to cut the smoking rate in half, in other words. Today, it is roughly about 44 percent of what it was in 1964. Just as importantly, but not talked about enough, is the amount of smoking has gone down because very few workplaces allow smoking any longer. There are very few 2- and 3-pack-a-day smokers today, compared to 50 years ago.
Jan. 11, 1964. The date the tide began to turn against the tobacco industry. It was the first major victory against the industry.