What Will A Tobacco History Timeline Show Fifty Years from Now?

Jan 28, 2014, 12:30 PM

A tobacco history timeline published today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showcases a decrease in smoking among adults, from 42.2 percent in 1965, shortly after the release of the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964, to about 18 percent today. More than just a repository of changes in smoking rates over the years, 50 Years of Tobacco Control is an interactive look at the events and actions that have prevented more than eight million premature deaths in the ongoing fight to keep communities safe from the dangers of tobacco.

The timeline offers interviews with today’s tobacco control leaders—people such as John Sefrin, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Cancer Society, and Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids—who have made enormous strides in tobacco control and have a bold vision for tobacco reduction in the future. While scrolling through the major tobacco control milestones of the last 50 years, viewers can examine historical cigarette advertisements, reports and photos.

The Tobacco Timeline is an excellent resource for understanding the last 50 years of tobacco control, as well as the ambitious goals that health advocates have set for the future. While eight million premature tobacco-related deaths have been prevented by tobacco control efforts, up to 20 million have been lost in the same time frame.

Although smoking rates have dramatically declined, there is much more to the story. At a White House event to release the new Surgeon General’s report, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius shared some urgent facts from the report, including the projection thatapproximately 5.6 million American children alive today—or one out of every 13 children under age 18—will die prematurely from smoking-related diseases unless current smoking rates drop.”

The new report ticks off new hazards of smoking in the last fifteen years, including new findings that show more diseases linked to smoking than previously reported including diabetes, colorectal cancer, liver cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, age-related macular degeneration and strokes caused by secondhand smoke. Additionally, according to the report, cigarettes themselves are more lethal than they were fifty years ago.

“Smokers today have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than they did when the first Surgeon General’s report was released in 1964, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes,” said Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, MD, MPH. “How cigarettes are made and the chemicals they contain have changed over the years, and some of those changes may be a factor in higher lung cancer risks.”

The leading tobacco advocacy groups joined together for the anniversary of the 1964 report and called for bold actions to “end the tobacco epidemic for good,” including:  

  • Reduce smoking rates to fewer than 10 percent within ten years
  • Protect all Americans from secondhand smoke within five years
  • Ultimately eliminate the death and disease caused by tobacco smoke

A “roadmap for ending the tobacco epidemic” from Tobacco-Free Kids advocates several steps for eradicating tobacco use in the United States:

  • Continuation and expansion of national media campaigns, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Tips from Former Smokers campaign and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) upcoming youth prevention campaign, “at a high frequency level and exposure for 12 months a year for a decade or more."
  • Increasing cigarette taxes to prevent kids from smoking and encourage smokers to quit.
  • Effective implementation of the FDA's authority over tobacco products "in order to reduce tobacco product addictiveness and harmfulness."
  • Fulfilling the Affordable Care Act's requirement that health plans provide coverage for tobacco cessation treatment, including counseling and medication.
  • Fully funding state tobacco prevention and cessation programs at CDC-recommended levels. Currently, only two states (North Dakota and Alaska) meet that standard.
  • Enacting comprehensive smoke-free laws that protect all Americans from secondhand smoke. Currently 24 states, Washington, D.C. and hundreds of cities have such laws, protecting only 49.1 percent of the U.S. population.

At the White House ceremony last week, CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, told attendees that the agency’s research finds that most smokers want to quit and have tried to quit in the past. An FAQ from CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health offers a set of well-researched questions and answers both on what makes it hard for smokers to quit and how to help.

All of these efforts and more being piloted in communities across the country can change the trajectory of the next tobacco timeline long before the next half century.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.