Former University of Utah researcher Walter Burdette helped write the surgeon general's report that first determined smoking may be hazardous to health. He celebrated its 25th anniversary Wednesday with a new report that had both good and bad news.
Burdette said the good news portion of this year's surgeon general's report on smoking was predicted by his group 25 years ago. "We felt then that if we could just educate people about the risks, that smoking would decrease and health would improve."The report showed they were right, that education about the effects of smoking created one of the greatest public health achievements of all time by dramatically decreasing smoking and the mushrooming of related disease.
But U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had bad news too.
"Smoking is still responsible for more than one of every six deaths in the United States. It still remains the single most important preventable cause of death in our society.
"The number of deaths caused in this
country from smoking is the same as if two jumbo jets crashed every day without a single survivor walking away," he added.
His report this year concluded that 390,000 people die annually from smoking - thousands more than earlier reports estimated. It also determined conclusively for the first time that smoking is a cause of strokes - and is responsible for about half of all strokes occurring in people younger than 65.
But Koop wanted to dwell on the positive - taking time to honor the pioneering efforts of Burdette and others, and the improved health they have helped provide many Americans.
He had James O. Mason, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and a former director of the Utah Health Department, introduce Burdette (who now practices surgery in Houston) and the three other surviving members of the committee of 12 scientists who wrote the first report on smoking.
"We've come further than we realistically thought we would, mainly because the Public Health Service has continued new studies on the effects of smoking," Burdette said. "I don't know if a smokeless society is possible, but I have hope."
Koop said that while smoking was chic in the 1940s and '50s, it is increasingly being shunned today.
Koop added that while 50 million Americans still smoke, more than 90 million would be smoking without the smoking-and-health environment changes that have occurred since 1964.
"The prevalence of smoking among adults decreased from 40 percent in 1965 to 29 percent in 1987. Nearly half of all living adults who ever smoked have quit," Koop said.
"Between 1964 and 1985, approximately 750,000 smoking-related deaths were avoided or postponed as a result of decisions to quit smoking, or not to start (which he said also will prevent another 2.1 million deaths by the year 2000). Each of these deaths avoided or postponed represents an average gain in life expectancy of two decades."
But Koop is upset by continuing advertising by tobacco companies claiming that smoking is not bad for health. He even took time to give a point-by-point rebuttal of a full-page, pro-smoking ad appearing in Wednesday's Washington Post.
Other major findings:
- One-fourth of high school seniors who have smoked had their first cigarette by sixth grade and one-half by eighth grade. This suggests smoking prevention education should begin in elementary school.
- Average male smokers are 22 times more likely to die from lung cancer than non-smokers.
- Smoking has declined steadily among both sexes, although much more slowly among women. Among men, prevalence has dropped from 50 percent to 32 percent.
Also of note to Utahns, one of the five editors of this year's surgeon general's report was Dr. John Holbrook, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah.