Antismoking crusade has saved 8 million lives in 50 years, study says

The surgeon general first warned of the dangers of smoking 50 years ago this month. The antismoking campaign that grew from that report has added 157 million years to lives that would otherwise have been cut short, a study says.

Pat Wellenbach/AP/File
Fifty years ago, US Surgeon General Luther Terry released an emphatic and authoritative report that said smoking causes illness and death. A study released Tuesday looks at progress made in the antismoking campaign.

Fifty years ago, many Americans considered smoking to be harmless if not beneficial to their health. That is until Jan. 11, 1964, when the surgeon general released the first ever report on smoking and health and declared smoking to be harmful.

Since that report, states, hospitals, and public health institutions have launched a multi-front campaign to change the public perception of smoking through a myriad of tobacco controls. Mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages, additional taxes, and public education campaigns have become ubiquitous during the past 50 years.

Such efforts have paid off to the tune of 8 million lives and a total of 157 million years of life saved, a new study released Tuesday from Yale University School of Public Health found. That’s an additional 20 years for each person that quit or never started smoking as a result of tobacco controls, with one quarter of those years gained under the age of 65.

There's “a lot of important information to celebrate” in this study, but the number of productive life years saved is particularly encouraging, says Glorian Sorenson, director of the Center for Community-Based Research at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who was not involved with the study.

“A lot of people think, ‘If I quit smoking, what’s it going to add to my life, maybe a little time on the calendar.’ ” Dr. Sorenson says. “Well, two decades is huge, and I think that’s a really important message to get out there.”

As encouraging as these findings are, an additional 17.7 million people died of smoking-related causes between 1964 and 2012, proving that there is still plenty of work to be done. That means for every life saved, more than two were lost.

It’s important to note that rate has not been steady over time, says Theodore Holford, a Yale biostatistics professor and lead author of the study. In the first decade following the study, only 11 percent of tobacco-related deaths were successfully prevented. Today, that number is closer to 50 percent.

“That’s pretty encouraging, and we’ve come quite a long way,” Dr. Holford says. “It’s just that there is still a lot to be done. There are still hundreds of thousands of people that are dying from an avoidable cause.”

On Jan. 16, Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak will release the 32nd report on smoking and health. It will both celebrate the reduction of smokers from 43 percent of all adult Americans in 1964 to 18 percent in 2012 and emphasize just how much work is left to be done.

“It’s fascinating to see the progress made in the last 50 years in terms of lives saved,” Rear Adm. Lushniak says. “But 18 percent is still 18 percent. Each and every day I have over 3,000 young adults and kids under the age of 18 who take up smoking…. Over 2,000 of them will become lifetime daily smokers.”

Lushniak and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place the onus of addressing that remaining 18 percent directly on states. Currently, states spend less than 2 percent of tax revenue derived from tobacco excise taxes and tobacco industry taxes on tobacco prevention and control programs.

“I would like to think that we will advance from now, and that 50 years from now we will look back at this 50th anniversary as the beginning of the end of this tobacco health problem,” he says.

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