It’s been fifty years since a watershed report was released in the United States, the 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the effect of tobacco and smoking on health.
A recent study estimated that as a result of this 1964 report, 50 million lives were saved worldwide that would have otherwise been lost to tobacco-related disease. The number of adults who smoke has been reduced by half – from 40% to 20% – between the 1960s and now.
With the publication of the report, the U.S. and other countries began to implement a broad variety of measures to counter widespread addiction to cigarettes.
What was the reaction of the powerful tobacco industry?
From before the report was published, and well into the 1990s, the industry countered with independent research that questioned the direct links drawn between using tobacco products and various diseases; new markets with fewer impending regulations were opened; new restrictions were met with litigation and arguments about consumer rights and choices; new forms of cigarettes were presented as less harmful.
Books and studies have dissected the tactics used by a large-scale, highly profitable and powerful industry to save itself. One very thorough book, The Cigarette Papers, quotes press statements released by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee over the course of decades. A sampling:
The tobacco industry recognizes that it has a special responsibility to help find the true facts about tobacco and health. Since 1954, it has been supporting a program of independent research through the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC)…
The TIRC emphasizes that many clinical and experimental factors still need to be identified, investigated, and evaluated regarding the origin of lung cancer and other diseases. Actually, the number of suspects under study in lung cancer has broadened and now includes viruses, previous lung ailments, air pollutants, heredity, stress and strain, and other factors.
While these [TIRC-funded] research studies have increased our factual knowledge, they have at the same time continued to make clear and to emphasize the great and critical gaps in that knowledge.
We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.
As the book’s authors state, the goal here wasn’t to discover facts, it was to perpetuate controversy about the adverse effects of tobacco, and in the interim, continue to remain an economic force.
The fact remains that smoking is harmful for anyone except the tobacco industry itself.
None of this, really, is news except for the part about how many lives were saved due to the Surgeon General’s report and its aftermath.
What I wondered, while I was reading all this and revisiting the ads proclaiming a ‘safer cigarette’ was this:
There have been countless reports on the effects of fossil-fuel consumption on health, the environment, and the climate. The oil industry has reacted in much the same way as the tobacco industry – to the point that numerous financial companies draw parallels between the plight of the two industries for investment purposes.
When it comes to damaging products and industries, it might take time, but regulation, awareness campaigns and alternatives work.