It’s been half a century since the first U.S. surgeon general’s report appeared linking smoking to lung cancer. In the decades that followed, federal and state health officials waged a vigorous public information and education campaign that convinced millions of Americans to kick the habit.
But as a new surgeon general’s report this month warned, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, and its health consequences for individuals are even more lethal than previously believed.
Some 20 million Americans have died prematurely from smoking-related illnesses since 1964. The new report found that in addition to lung cancer and heart disease, smoking causes liver and colorectal cancer, Type 2 diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, erectile dysfunction and rheumatoid arthritis.
It weakens the immune system, aggravates asthma and has been linked to cleft lips and palates in fetuses. Merely being exposed to secondhand smoke can cause strokes.
It’s surely safe to say that no other product legally on the market is both so addictive and has so great a potential for killing those who use it.
And ironically smokers today are at higher risk of developing some illnesses than were smokers of an earlier era because of changes in cigarette manufacture and chemical composition. Tobacco is probably the only consumer product that has actually gotten worse for people’s health than it was 50 years ago.
As a result, the social and economic costs of smoking are staggering. The surgeon general’s report estimates the direct medical costs of treating smoking-related illnesses come to $130 billion a year. Additionally, illnesses and deaths caused by tobacco use cost the economy another $150 billion a year in lost productivity.
Americans have come a long way toward recognizing the grave risks of tobacco use both for the individual and for society as a whole. But there’s not been the same commitment to eliminate tobacco-related deaths as there was for eradicating other global killers such as smallpox, polio and malaria.
The surgeon general’s report calls on Americans to address smoking deaths with similar urgency by enacting tougher regulations on tobacco products, strengthening laws for smoke-free workplaces and creating more effective tax policies and public information campaigns to help smokers quit and keep nonsmokers from starting. This is an issue that lawmakers urgently need to address, and the time to act is now.The Baltimore Sun