Smoking tied to cancer: Jan. 11, 1964

Although a committee of British doctors and scientists had linked smoking and cancer two years earlier, the report released on this morning by U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry is expected to have huge repercussions. That’s why aides to President Lyndon Johnson have asked that the release of the document be moved to a Saturday—they’re that  nervous about the impact it will have on the stock market.

The first two copies of the 387-page report, wrapped in brown paper, are delivered to the White House early in the morning.  Then a few hours later, reporters begin gathering in a Washington auditorium.  After they’re locked in and denied access to phones, the journalists are handed the report and given 90 minutes to read it, after which they’re able to ask Terry questions. He reiterates the conclusions that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer in men and a probable cause in women. He also notes that the research found that the use of filters in cigarettes did not reduce the risk, as tobacco companies had claimed.

The findings were not exactly revolutionary. Since 1950, studies that found higher rates of lung cancer in heavy smokers had been appearing in medical journals. A widely read article in _Reader’s Digest i_n 1952, “Cancer by the Carton,”  helped to bring the largest drop in cigarette consumption since the Depression. In 1954, the American Cancer Society had announced that smokers had a higher cancer risk.

But the tobacco industry fought back. In addition to claiming that filters in cigarettes would stop toxins from entering a person's lungs, cigarette companies began placing full-page ads in hundreds of newspapers in which they argued that research linking tobacco  products and cancer was inconclusive.

The tobacco industry quickly responded to the Surgeon General's report. About a month after its release, six cigarette companies made a $10 million research grant to the American Medical Association (AMA).  Soon thereafter, AMA executives wrote a letter to  the Federal Trade Commission objecting to the labeling of cigarettes as health hazards.

Nevertheless, within a year Congress passed a law requiring warning labels on cigarette packs, and in 1971 cigarette advertising was banned from TV.

The 1970s also saw the birth of a movement to protect nonsmokers from cigarette fumes, with the creation of no-smoking sections on airplanes, in restaurants and in other places. Those eventually gave way to complete smoking bans. Cigarette machines disappeared, cigarette taxes rose, and restrictions on the sale of cigarettes to minors got tougher.

Tobacco companies also came under increasing legal attack. More than 40 states brought lawsuits demanding compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. Finally, in 1998, the tobacco industry settled the lawsuits by agreeing to pay about $200 billion and curtail marketing of cigarettes to youths. It was also that year--34 years after the Surgeon General's report--that tobacco executives, in an appearance before Congress, publicly acknowledged for the first time that tobacco can cause lung cancer and be addictive.

Each year, an estimated 443,000 people in the U.S. die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.