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When the wind changed on smoking

In 1962 at President Kennedy’s direction, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry assembled ten leading scientists to review the existing science on smoking.

In June 1962 when the panel was formed, its members were selected with an eye to a lack of bias. The Tobacco Institute certainly thought so. It praised the study, calling it “both timely and appropriate, in view of the recent flurry of attention to the subject.” While the panel of scientists was doing its work, Tobacco Institute president George Allen said that what he claimed was the lack of information on any cancer/tobacco link meant that no one should expect “any group of men” to provide final answers.

The panel reviewed huge amounts of information, including seven studies of the medical histories of 1,123,000 men, resulting in a 150,000 word, 387-page report released 50 years ago this month that concluded smoking was the principal cause of chronic bronchitis and of death from cancer and bronchitis, that it sharply increased the risk of heart disease. It said that no evidence was found “to establish that filters have any effect whatever in reducing the health hazards of smoking.”

“For lung cancer, the most frequent site of cancer in men, the death rate is nearly 1,000 percent higher,” the report said. “For chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which are among the leading causes of severe disability, the death rate for cigarette smokers is 500 percent higher than for non-smokers.”

The chance of mouth cancer rose 310 percent. Esophageal cancer, 240 percent. Cancer of the larynx, 440 percent. Peptic ulcer, 180 percent. And so on, and on. And while the report was based on studies of men, it said that evidence indicated similar numbers for women. (The report can be read at http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/NN/B/B/M/Q/)

Insurance industry exec Louis Dublin said, “The best estimate I can get is that we can ascribe 100,000 premature deaths a year to the smoking habit, and more particularly to the smoking of cigarettes.” He estimated that a family lost $100,000 when a working man died prematurely. That’s $751,474.19 in 2013 dollars.

The tobacco industry continued to try to question the science. I remember one claim from the industry that there was also a statistical correlation between smoking and divorce. Fortunately, most leaders respected the science. If it happened today, there would be millions in corporate money to hire rent-a-scientists and public relations people to discredit the science, as has been done with climate change.

One year after the Terry report, a panel of authorities released a survey indicating smoking among males dropped from 59 to 52 percent and among females from 31 to 28 percent. “If smoking habits had continued at the level of three years ago, there would be about 3.5 million more smokers than there actually are today,” Terry said.

By three years later 27 percent of all smokers had stopped.

There may have been fluctuations after that, but the trend was steady. And eventually the public began running out of patience with an industry that sold death-dealing drugs and promoted the “rights of smokers.”

For the 25th anniversary of the Terry report in 1989, the Tobacco Institute ran newspaper ads claiming there had been “enough taxation…enough legislation…enough control…enough censorship…enough harassment…enough discrimination [against smokers].”

A Florida newspaper replied, “Americans have had enough, all right. They’ve had enough of an industry that encourages continued smoking, despite the fact that every reputable scientific study has shown that smoking is ‘a very dangerous addiction.’ They’ve had enough of telling their children to ‘just say no’ to addictive drugs while tobacco companies peddle a product that’s as addictive as heroin.”

I regret to say that my mother did not listen to the Terry report and continued smoking. Four years after the Terry report, we lost her to lung cancer at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno. My message to readers: It doesn’t have to happen.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.