ATLANTA – Fifty years ago, ashtrays seemed to be on every table and desk. Athletes and even Fred Flintstone endorsed cigarettes in TV commercials. Smoke hung in the air in restaurants, offices and airplane cabins.
More than 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked, and there was a good chance your doctor was among them.
The turning point came on Jan. 11, 1964. It was on that Saturday morning that U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released an emphatic and authoritative report that said smoking causes illness and death – and the government should do something about it.
In the decades that followed, warning labels were put on cigarette packs, cigarette commercials were banned, taxes were raised, and new restrictions were placed on where people could light up.
It was the beginning, said Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan professor of public health and a leading authority on smoking and health.
It was not the end. While the U.S. smoking rate has fallen by more than half to 18 percent, that still translates to more than 43 million smokers.
Smoking is still far and away the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Some experts predict large numbers of Americans will puff away for decades to come.
Nevertheless, the Terry report has been called one of the most important documents in U.S. public health history, and on its 50th anniversary, officials are not only rolling out new anti-smoking campaigns but reflecting on what the nation did right that day.
The report’s message was hardly revolutionary. Since 1950, head-turning studies that found higher rates of lung cancer in heavy smokers had been appearing in medical journals.
A widely read article in Reader’s Digest in 1952, Cancer by the Carton, contributed to the largest drop in cigarette use since the Depression. In 1954, the American Cancer Society announced that smokers had a higher cancer risk.
In 1957 and 1959, Surgeon General Leroy Burney issued statements that heavy smoking causes lung cancer. But they had little effect.
In 1965, Congress required cigarette packs to carry warning labels. Two years later, the Federal Communications Commission ordered TV and radio stations to provide free airtime for anti-smoking public service announcements. Cigarette commercials were banned in 1971.
The 1970s also saw the birth of a movement to protect nonsmokers from cigarette fumes, with no-smoking sections on airplanes, in restaurants and in other places. Those eventually gave way to complete smoking bans.
Cigarette machines disappeared, cigarette taxes rose, and restrictions on the sale of cigarettes to minors got tougher.
Tobacco companies came under legal attack.
In the biggest case of them all, more than 40 states brought lawsuits demanding compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. Big Tobacco settled in 1998 by agreeing to pay $200 billion and change its marketing.
Also that year, while that settlement was worked out, tobacco executives appeared before Congress and publicly acknowledged for the first time that their products can cause lung cancer and be addictive.
Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.