Fifty years later, winning the war on cigarettes


    Rather than lament what’s wrong about America (our default reflex), here’s something big on the upside: We no longer dwell in an environment choked with cigarette smoke.

    We take it for granted these days that our bars, ballparks, dog parks, people parks, restaurants, elevators, and offices are free of lethal fumes – but all of this was unthinkable half a century ago. Back then, cigarettes were glamorous fashion accessories. Cigarette ads were ubiquitous on TV, the Marlboro man was a role model, 43 percent of adult Americans indulged the addiction, and the abstinent inhaled the leftovers. Most Americans probably knew on some level that cigarettes were killers, but the default reflex in those days was willful denial.

    I mention all this for a reason. Last Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the historic U.S. Surgeon General report that conclusively declared cigarette smoking to be a death product. Nobody in government had ever said that before. In the words of the Surgeon General (the nation’s top doc), cigarettes were “a major cause of lung cancer” and “contributed substantially” to the mortality rate.

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    Politically controversial at the time – the report was delberately released on a Saturday, so that congressmen on recess would not be compelled to comment – it triggered a public health revolution that continues to this day. A study published in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association says that the tough public policy measures enacted since 1964 have saved 8 million American lives. The share of adults who smoke cigarettes has dropped to 18 percent.

    And whereas, 50 years ago, cigarette ads carried no health warnings, check out these new ads. The federal judiciary, fed up with the tobacco industry’s lies and suppression of health risk evidence, has ordered that the industry make amends by advertising, on TV and in print, the full litany of risks.

    Draft language: “Smoking causes heart disease, emphysema, acute myeloid leukemia, and cancer of the mouth, espophagus, larnyx, lung, kidney, bladder, and pancreas.” Draft language: “Smoking is highly addictive. Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco.” (Not even Don Draper on Mad Men would know how to work around those.)

    Federal judge Gladys Kessler, who has ordered the industry to run those ads, declared in 2006 that the industry was guilty of violating the civil racketeering laws. She wrote: “(This case) is about an industry…that survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system. Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more.”

    Yet despite all the progress in the last 50 years, we’re still seeing “a staggering number of deaths per year” –  roughly 440,000 dying early from smoking-related diseases. An 18 percent smoking population still translates into 44 million adults (plus 3.6 million kids), and that all translates into roughly $193 billion a year in health care expenditures and lost productivity. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    By the way: Imagine what our breathing environment would be like if the Surgeon General, the CDC, the federal courts, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the (often reluctant) Congress had declined to do their jobs these last 50 years. Absent these arbiters of “socialism,” imagine if the tobacco industry had been allowed to run rampant in the name of unfettered private enterprise. We need only harken back to how the industry initially responded to the historic study of 1964.

    In a confidential memo to the chairman of the Philip Morris Tobacco Company, firm president George Weissman called the Surgeon General’s report a “propaganda blast” and suggested that the industry find covert ways to publicly ridicule the government’s concerns: “While it should not be done in the industry’s name, someone ought to be contacting all the cartoonists, television gag writers, satirical reviews, etc., to apply the light touch to this question.”

    The “light touch” idea went nowhere, because the government and the antismoking lobby stayed on the case. For decades, their toughest fight was to force the tobacco industry to concede that cigarettes were addictive, to concede that it fiddled with the nicotine formula to enhance the addictive properties. None of the rotating cigarette-pack health warnings, mandated by the feds in the mid-’80s, mentioned addiction. The industry copped to the health risks, but it stuck to the party line on addiction.

    In 1985, when I was a young(er) guy covering the tobacco issue in Washington, a tobacco industry flak told me: “To attempt, through tortured use of colloquial language, to ascribe ‘addiction’ to smoking, is inappropriate. People misuse that word. I can say I’m ‘addicted’ to chocolate, but I’m not really addicted. I just like it a lot.” That sounded to me like a pile a dung, but what I didn’t know at the time – what nobody knew – was that industry viewed its product as addictive. For instance: In confidential memos (not released until the late ’90s), executives at the Liggett tobacco company talked about cigarettes as “a habit forming drug,” and referred to smokers as “addicts.”

    In 2014 it’s just assumed that cigarettes are addictive; as evidenced by the court-ordered ads, the industry has lost that PR fight. And on the health front, they’re losing anew. In a report released today, the Surgeon General says that in addition all the known risks, smoking adds to the list of people suffering from colorectal cancer, liver cancer, diabetes, ectopic pregnancy, vision loss, rheumatoid arthritis, impaired immune function, and erectile dysfunction. (The latter might get the attention of guy smokers.)

    But the war on cigaretttes isn’t over, and I well recall what that tobacco flak told me nearly 30 years ago: “The industry is not going to dry up and blow away.” All the more reason for health advocates to keep the heat on.


    More good news: Pennsylvania’s “voter ID” law – concocted by the GOP regime in a transparent bid to dissuade black and low-income people from voting and thus rig the state for Mitt Romney – was whacked today by a state judge, who said that it “unreasonably burdens the right to vote.” The law was put in limbo during the ’12 election, basically for that reason. But don’t be surprised if the GOP regime appeals the ruling, in the hopes of rigging the state in ’16 for Romney’s successor.


    Last Monday, I was “in conversation” with America’s odd couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin, at the Free Library of Philadelphia. A rollicking time was had by all, sold-out audience included. Here’s the podcast.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman




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