Tuesday, January 21, 2014

50 Years Later and the Surgeon General Is Still Warning Us About Tobacco

Addictions among teens appears to be going the right direction.
It's been 50 years and a week now since Surgeon General Luther Terry told us we might want to think about not smoking any more because it was killing us. The annual U.S. death rate from smoking remains right at 450,000. We have gone from knowing of one type of cancer caused by smoking to 13, and right now, 3,200 children an hour pick up their first cigarette.

The industry spends $1 million an hour on marketing and advertising and the cost to our economy has been estimated at $300 billion a year. Our government only recently stopped subsidizing tobacco and isn't anywhere near properly regulating it. In fact, every year, the industry piles in more toxic chemicals to its deadly mix making it even more lethal, and it's already the leading cause of death in our country.

In 1964, the Surgeon General's Report was a radical departure from governmental fear of the powerful tobacco industry and since then 31 Surgeons General have agreed that cigarettes kill. Still, it was only about 10 years ago when Big Tobacco lost its first court case and wins against it remain rare because its functionaries write the laws for the congressmen it purchases in bundles at bargain prices.

Still, the evidence continues to pile up and we're now looking at 13 different cancers that are positively caused by smoking. Diabetes, stroke, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and failure of various organs are directly related to smoking. Smoking is one of the leading causes of male sexual dysfunction.

My mother used to talk about "calming my nerves" as she lit up a Kool. She died of emphasema. My father loved unfiltered Chesterfields. He died in an iron lung, weighing 90 pounds. I railed against smoking for years even as I was addicted to it. I wanted the government to make it illegal so I wouldn't have to take all of the responsibility of quitting. It remains one of the most difficult obstacles I've overcome and I am a recovering alcoholic.

Nicotine, I'm told, is more addicting than cocaine, though nicotine beyond that addictive tendency isn't harmful. I have a friend who smokes e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine, but none of the harmful tobacco chemicals. I have several close friends who smoke and it breaks my heart every time one of them lights up.

Still, the smoker, is the rarity. Just 18 percent of American adults smoke these days. In 1958, 68 percent of men smoked, 32 percent of women. The percentages of difference between the genders has shrunk substantially since then, but both are a lot lower and falling.

I'm deeply grateful we're where we are with smoking--among the world leaders in quitting. But I damn well want cigarettes gone from this country and this planet. There is absolutely no reason to keep cigarettes and every reason to lose them.

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