Fifty years ago, the U.S. surgeon general released a report that changed the nation’s relationship with tobacco.

To mark the anniversary of the pivotal report, the American Heart Association and other leading  health organizations outlined goals on Wednesday to reduce the adult smoking rate to less than 10 percent in 10 years, eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke in five years and eventually end the tobacco epidemic.

The first Surgeon General’s report, issued Jan. 11, 1964, spurred landmark legislation that required warning labels on cigarettes and banned tobacco advertising on television. Smoking is still the nation’s No. 1 cause of death, killing 443,000 Americans and costing the nation $193 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity each year.

“Since 1964, the American Heart Association’s commitment to reducing the toll of tobacco has not wavered,” Mariell Jessup, M.D., president of the American Heart Association and Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Heart and Vascular Center told a gathering in Washington, D.C. “The reasons for this could not be clearer. A person who smokes is two to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than a nonsmoker. Cigarette smoking doubles a person’s risk for stroke. And thirty percent of all heart disease and strokes is caused by smoking.”

The 50th anniversary report, which will be issued next week, shows that reducing tobacco use has had the single greatest impact on the nation’s health over the last 50 years. By 1969, 70 percent of Americans believed smoking caused heart disease, more than double the amount from 1958. Smoking rates have been cut by more than half, with per capita consumption down by over 70 percent.

Photo of Mariell Jessup, M.D.

Photo of Mariell Jessup, M.D.

Association has long history of fighting tobacco

The American Heart Association first issued a statement about the tie between cigarette smoking and heart disease in 1956. In the 1960s, the association intensified its anti-cigarette smoking program, supported the Federal Trade Commission’s regulations on cigarette labeling and advertising, issued educational materials for consumers and doctors and published articles about the dangers of smoking.

Over time, the American Heart Association has continued with its fight by supporting smoke-free air laws around the country and advocating for significant increases in federal, state and local excise tobacco taxes. Many studies have shown that tobacco taxes reduce smoking prevalence, especially in youth. For every 10 percent hike in cigarette prices, overall cigarette consumption goes down by 3 to 5 percent.

“We know how to end the epidemic of tobacco addition. We must increase tobacco taxes, pass strong smoke-free laws and fully fund state tobacco prevention and cessation programs,” Jessup said. “These measures can reduce the number of adult smokers to less than 10 percent of the population by 2024 and ensure that all Americans are protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke.”

Photo courtesy of Matthew Bannister