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Stop-smoking battle still raging 50 years after surgeon general published health risks

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 8:20 p.m. MST

A half-century ago, the surgeon general first outlined health risks associated with smoking.

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More than four in 10 American adults were smokers — and so were a lot of kids — 50 years ago when the surgeon general first announced that smoking kills. The report "Smoking and Health" said bluntly that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and is linked to other serious diseases.

In the half-century since that report came out on Jan. 11, 1964, an estimated eight million deaths have been prevented by stop-smoking efforts, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

About 42 percent of American adults smoked in 1964, and that number has plummeted to about 18 percent. The reduction in tobacco use is believed to account for a substantial portion of gains made in life expectancy in America, which has risen by five years since that first report on tobacco dangers.

But despite widespread knowledge of these dangers, along with increased taxes, advertising bans, warning labels on tobacco products and laws limiting smoking, some haven't quite managed to kick butts. That fact bothers a coalition of anti-tobacco nonprofits that this week called for renewed, vigorous efforts to reduce tobacco use.

One of the groups, The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, points out that nearly 44 million American adults and 3.6 million adolescents and children smoke. The four conditions most linked to tobacco use — heart disease, cancer, lung ills and stroke — are still the top causes of death in the United States.

There are two things blocking progress, said Dr. Les Beitsch, chairman of Medical Humanities and Social Sciences for the College of Medicine at Florida State University. First, nicotine is incredibly addictive to those who use the product. Second, corporations are addicted to the massive profits they make off that first addiction, he said.

"We’ve made enormous progress, but we can’t declare victory when tobacco is still the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths in the United States," Vince Willmore, the spokesman for The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Deseret News. "We know how to win this, and it cannot take another 50 years. We cannot afford another 50 years of death and disease caused by tobacco."

The toll

The vast majority of smokers began at or before they were 18 years old. Tobacco-Free Kids notes that each day more than 3,000 American children try cigarettes for the first time.

Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics reported that about 443,000 Americans die prematurely each year from smoking-related causes. Tobacco use costs about $96 billion in the United States in health care bills and $97 billion in lost productivity.

Worldwide, tobacco is believed to kill almost six million people a year.

"Tobacco is, quite simply, in a league of its own in terms of the sheer number and varieties of ways it kills and maims people," Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, wrote in a JAMA Commentary. "Images of smoking in movies, television and on the Internet remain common; and cigarettes continue to be far too affordable in nearly all parts of the country."

A coalition of organizations believes implementing proven programs and policies can end tobacco's stranglehold on smokers. In a joint statement Wednesday, they asked for "bold action" by government to achieve three goals: Reduce smoking rates to less than 10 percent within 10 years; protect all Americans from secondhand smoke within five years; and "ultimately eliminate the death and disease caused by tobacco use."

The groups in the coalition are the American Academy of Pediatrics; American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; American Heart Association; American Lung Association; Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights; and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Legacy.

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