The year 1964 will be remembered for many things — campus protests, the Warren Commission's report on the JFK assassination and the launching of President Lyndon Johnson's War On Poverty Campaign. But few things have more of an impact on people's lives today than what occurred 50 years ago this week.
On Jan. 11, 1964, then-Surgeon General Luther Terry released a comprehensive report declaring once and for all that smoking causes lung cancer and was the leading cause of chronic bronchitis. It was a blockbuster announcement at a time when health advocates and the tobacco industry were in a pitched public relations battle over whether cigarettes were unhealthy.
The stakes were high. At the time, 42 percent of U.S. adults were smokers. Studies showed a third to half of all physicians smoked as well.
Concerns about smoking were nothing new. Medical journals had been publishing studies since 1950 showing higher rates of lung cancer in heavy smokers. Ten years earlier, the American Cancer Society had announced that smokers had a higher risk of cancer.
The tobacco industry responded with a campaign claiming the studies were inconclusive. Cigarette companies further confused the issue by marketing filtered cigarettes, claiming they trapped cancer-causing toxins. The campaign worked in the short run as cigarette sales started to rebound.
The surgeon general sought to put an end to the dispute by convening a panel of experts — half of whom were smokers — to examine the evidence. When it did, the findings were decisive. Not only did the report find that smoking was a cause of laryngeal cancer in men and a probable cause of lung cancer in women — and filters didn't help — it urged the federal government to take action.
And it did. The following year, Congress adopted the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, and by the 1969 it had adopted the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act as well. These required health warnings on cigarette packages, banned cigarette ads on TV and radio stations and called for an annual report on the health consequences of smoking.