It’s been 50 years since we first learned that tobacco smoke is deadly. Since the release of the groundbreaking, 1964 Surgeon General’s report, we have further evidence that links smoking to diseases of nearly all organs of the body.
In light of this significant health anniversary, a new report, The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General, was released this week. It states that more than 20 million Americans have died because of smoking.
When releasing this information, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said something that really put this number into perspective for me. Tobacco has killed 10 times the number of Americans who have died in all of our nation’s wars combined, making the war on tobacco the deadliest of the wars in which we’ve engaged.
Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about the battle against tobacco. We know that smoking is known to cause 13 types of cancer. In fact, smoking causes one out of three cancer deaths.
We also have learned about the dangers of secondhand smoke. Of those 20 million deaths, more than 2.5 million deaths have been among nonsmokers who died from exposure to secondhand smoke.
While these numbers are sobering, there is good news to report. Today, only 18 percent of Americans smoke, compared to the staggering 43 percent of adults who smoked in 1965. Lower smoking rates have saved eight million lives and added about three years to the average life expectancy.
As a program officer who works with our Healthy Lifestyles grantees to reduce exposure to tobacco, I’m encouraged to read what we already knew: tobacco control strategies and programs — in combination with enhanced strategies to rapidly eliminate the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products — are working to help us achieve a society free of tobacco-related death and disease.
Our grantees and other agencies around the nation are employing successful strategies, like:
Smoke-free policies in public places
Make smoking the exception, not the norm
Easy-to-access, affordable smoking cessation treatments
Higher prices on cigarettes and other tobacco products
Mass media campaigns about the dangers of smoking
State and community outreach, along with educational and public health programs.
These successes in tobacco control have more than halved the smoking rate since the Surgeon General’s landmark report. Because of these efforts, what used to be viewed as a national pastime is now widely known as a threat to individual and pubic health.
We’ll hear a lot in the coming weeks and months about this 50th anniversary. We’ll hear that we still have work to do. That smoking remains the single largest cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. That without doing more to reduce current smoking rates, 5.6 million children alive today will die early from smoking (that is equal to 1 out of every 13 children).
As funders working to create healthy communities, the message we should remember is that the time is NOW to begin a tobacco-free future. We can make the next generation tobacco-free. We have the tools. As a Foundation, we look forward to working with those in our communities in this effort to end the war on tobacco.