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Jan. 11, 1964: A watershed moment against smoking

Friday - 1/10/2014, 6:53pm  ET

WASHINGTON - There was a time in America when smoking was considered glamorous and safe.

Movies glorified smoking, and television ads featured the Marlboro Man galloping across the plains with a Stetson on his head and a cigarette in his hand.

All that began to change on Jan. 11, 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a watershed report on smoking and health.

After 14 months of study, a 10-man panel declared smoking was enough of a health risk to warrant government action. At a press conference where he unveiled the 150,000 word report, Terry said the evidence presented to the committee showed that "cigarette smoking is related to high death rates in a number of disease categories."

That report launched what many consider the most successful public health movement of the 20th century. In the years that followed, warning labels were put on cigarette packs, TV ads were banned, tobacco taxes were raised and no-smoking regulations became the norm.

"By far, that report 50 years ago was what really started the wave of the anti- smoking campaign," says Dr. Tom LoRusso with Pulmonary and Critical Care Specialists of Northern Virginia.

The decline in smoking since 1964 has been dramatic. Before the report was issued, 42 percent of Americans smoked. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that number is down to about 19 percent.

But 19 percent still translates to an estimated 43.8 million people. And LoRusso emphasizes that "smoking is still far and away the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S."

He sees the ill effects of smoking every day in his practice as he treats patients with emphysema, heart disease and lung cancer.

"If there were one thing that could actually help your long-term health, cessation of smoking would be at the top of the list," LoRusso says.

Health concerns were among the factors that prompted WTOP's Molly Welton of Greenbelt, Md., to quit smoking six years ago. She got a new puppy, and when they went out for a walk and her small dog broke into a run, Welton struggled to keep up.

"All of a sudden, I was just gasping for air, and she would just want to keep on running and I couldn't catch my breath to do it," Welton says.

"We had to stop because I couldn't breathe."

Welton says she knew if she didn't do something, it was going to be a bigger problem later because "the signs were already there."

She waited, debated quitting, and finally reached for a nicotine patch when she realized her tobacco habit was just too expensive to keep.

"The cost was the final nail in the coffin," Welton says. "I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't afford it."

Anti-smoking advocates say tobacco taxes have proven to be an especially effective way to cut smoking, particularly among the young. Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says the taxes are a strong deterrent for kids, noting "they are very price sensitive."

He, too, sees the glass as half empty, half full on the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's report on smoking and health. Smoking among children is at an all time low -- about 16 percent.

However, too many kids still smoke.

"Not only do more than 3,000 kids light up for the first time every day, 90 percent of our long-term smokers start as children," Myers says.

Tom LoRusso, the pulmonary specialist, says, "It just drives me crazy when I see a young person who continues to smoke."

And Welton, who picked up her first cigarette as a teen, says she wishes she could make that kid understand just how tough the habit can be to kick.

She says giving up smoking is one of the most difficult things she has ever done. But she makes clear she has no doubts about her decision to quit.

Millions have chosen a similar course since 1964. Researchers recently crunched a lot of numbers, using mortality data spanning decades, and found about 8 million premature smoking-related deaths were prevented by the Surgeon General's report and the tobacco control steps that followed.

One who did not benefit was the Marlboro Man. Three men who appeared for many years in ads as the rugged, chain-smoking cowboy -- David McClean, Dick Hammer and Wayne McLaren -- all died of lung cancer.

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