50 Years After Landmark Warning, 8 Million Fewer Smoking Deaths

Saturday marks an important milestone in public health – the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health.

Few if any documents have had the impact of this one – both on the amount of disease and death prevented, and on the very scope of public health.

An analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that 8 million Americans avoided premature death as a result of tobacco control efforts launched by the 1964 report. Those efforts range from cigarette warning labels to escalating taxes on cigarettes to proliferating restrictions on where people can smoke. They were augmented by a series of high-profile surgeon general reports detailing the dangers to smokers, unborn children and bystanders.

But the impact of the 1964 report is even broader than that, according to Harvard historianAllan Brandt. “If we look at the history of public health – from the safety of cars and roads, other dangerous products, the environment, clean air, the workplace – all of these issues really have their origins in a moment 50 years ago around the first surgeon general’s report,” Brandt tells Shots. He’s the author of a 2007 historyThe Cigarette Century.

But all that impact unfolded over decades, and for many years it didn’t appear the report would launch such a revolution.

In 1970s, when Joanne Iuliucci of Staten Island, N.Y., started smoking at age 12, she says she had no idea that smoking was dangerous, even though surgeon general’s bombshell report had come out six years earlier.

"Absolutely not! Why would I?" says Iuliucci. "Because everybody was smoking. Mother and Father were smoking. Doctors were smoking. You were able to smoke in the movie theater, food shopping with Mom. Really, back then nobody knew what we know today."

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Top photo: Tobacco companies incorporated doctors in their ads, such as this 1930 Lucky Strike campaign, to convince the public that smoking wasn’t harmful.(Stanford University)

Bottom photo: Surgeon General Luther Terry holds a copy of the 387-page report that connected smoking to lung cancer and heart disease on Jan. 11, 1964. (HWG/AP Photo)