5.6 Million Kids Alive Today Will Die Prematurely From Smoking
Today’s release of the US Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health is a watershed moment, marking the 50th anniversary since the first report in 1964 that forever changed Americans’ understanding of the deadly consequences of tobacco use and made the phrase “Surgeon General’s Report” a brand with the power to affect one of our country’s greatest achievements in public health. But, 50 years later, this new report warns that unless we increase the efforts we know work and continue to utilize new ones, 5.6 million kids alive today will die prematurely of tobacco-related disease and nearly 500,000 Americans will die each year.
“The report is remarkable in its scope and content,” said Legacy’s CEO and president, Robin L. Koval. “It emphasizes that the disease risks associated with tobacco consumption are far greater than ever reported previously—finding that cigarette smoking may cause colorectal cancer; that secondhand smoke causes stroke; and that smoking is now linked to diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. And for young people who typically pay less attention to the risk of disease, smoking is now linked to erectile dysfunction and reduced fertility. If ever there was a clarion for even stronger action, this is it. Fortunately, we know what works to drive down tobacco consumption—bold tobacco education programs, clean indoor air laws, and higher taxes. We must work harder than ever to reach our ‘10 in 10’ goal of reducing smoking prevalence to below 10% by 2024.”
Perhaps most significant, the report makes a bold call to eliminate combusted tobacco products–—burned tobacco cigarettes—which are the root cause of most tobacco-related diseases and deaths. Citing Dr. Robert N. Proctor, author of The Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, the surgeon general states:
“The scientific evidence is incontrovertible: inhaling the combustion compounds from tobacco smoke, particularly from cigarettes, is deadly. It has been stated that ‘The cigarette is also a defective product, meaning not just dangerous but unreasonably dangerous, killing half its long-term users. And addictive by design.’”
“This is a powerful new statement from the surgeon general. It’s the burning of tobacco, and not the nicotine per se, that produces the highly toxic tars and carbon monoxide gas that damages precious body parts. Whether you burn tobacco in a cooler form (menthol), through a hookah waterpipe, or via a flavored cigarrillo – any type of burning is lethal. Tobacco has been wedded to our history since the founding of our nation, but it’s high time we part with this history and close this chapter,” said Dr. David Abrams, executive director of Legacy’s Schroeder Institute on Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, and a contributor to the report.
The surgeon general is especially pointed in the report’s assessment of the US tobacco industry, finding that “The tobacco epidemic was initiated and has been sustained by the aggressive strategies of the tobacco industry, which has deliberately misled the public on the risks of smoking cigarettes.”
While there is much yet to be done, it is undeniable that the social norm change that has occurred since 1964 surrounding the issue of tobacco use is nothing short of extraordinary. Throughout the nation, in cities and states from coast to coast, smoking in public transit, at sporting events, in public parks and beaches, and at restaurants and bars is no longer the norm. And yet, tobacco remains the number one preventable cause of death in our country, impacting millions of families, hurting our communities, and costing the nation more than $289 billion each year. It remains the Mount Everest of public health missions.
“Tobacco remains our nation’s number one public health climb,” said Koval. “But, like Mount Everest, we know what it will take to get to the top and solve this problem once and for all and leave a legacy to the future of a population unburdened by the death, disease, and dollar cost of tobacco: Generation Free.”
Five decades of work in tobacco control illustrate what works: comprehensive programs that include prevention and cessation initiatives—such as bold anti-tobacco public education campaigns—as well as tobacco excise taxes and clean indoor air initiatives. Among adult smokers, nearly 90 percent tried their first cigarettes before the age of 18. Youth prevention is an essential element in the fight against tobacco. National and evidence-based public education campaigns, like the truth youth smoking prevention campaign are a key component in reducing youth and young adult tobacco use. The report highlights the need for us to continue to work to limit flavorings like menthol in cigarettes as well as other attractively packaged and youth-friendly flavors like grape, strawberry and vanilla-flavored little cigars and cigarillos which are on the rise among kids. The tobacco industry—smart marketers for generations—is ever-evolving and continues to find new ways to reach the next generation of smokers, thus replacing the 1,200 smokers who die from tobacco-related diseases each day. And, despite restrictions on tobacco advertising to youth, young people are still exposed to what appears to be pro-smoking messaging in movies and television on a daily basis, influencing them to model the behavior of actors and celebrities who smoke on-screen.
The report reiterates how certain segments of the population continue to be at higher risk of using tobacco and contracting tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco-use disparities are associated with overall health disparities that dramatically shorten the life expectancy and quality of life of the poor. This inequity is a matter of social justice, impacting people who tend to be less educated, less affluent, and may come from specific ethnic or minority groups. While broader societal advances are indeed a positive step, large segments of the population continue to be tragically left behind.
“Our challenge now is to re-double our efforts because the hardest, but most rewarding, part of the climb still lies ahead,” added Koval. “We resolve to finish the work begun by Dr. Luther Terry and so many others in 1964. We’re closer than ever to Generation Free—the first smoke-free population in history,” she said.