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posted: 1/8/2014 9:02 AM

Editorial: 50-year war against smoking still worth fighting

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

As any "Mad Men" devotee can tell you, smoking was all the rage in the early 1960s. It seemed like everyone lit up and there were few boundaries on where people smoked.

Despite some reports that smoking was dangerous -- including in the popular Reader's Digest as early as 1952 -- the average person paid little attention to those dangers. Indeed, the industry made sure to portray smoking as normal and "cool" as much as possible in tobacco companies' many print and television advertisements.

All that began to change, however, 50 years ago this week. On Jan. 11, 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report that said in no uncertain terms that smoking causes illness and death. And from that point forward, society's view of smoking began to change, albeit slowly. The report's release remains a shining example of the government getting involved in a positive way to improve Americans' lives.

Ironically, that surgeon general was a smoker himself (quitting just a few months before his news conference on Jan. 11), as was President Lyndon B. Johnson. Indeed, more than 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked at that time; now the rate is about 18 percent.

A new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported Tuesday Associated Press, says 8 million lives have been saved due to anti-smoking efforts. And tobacco control accounts for about 30 percent of the increase in life expectancy rates in the U.S. since 1964,

Today, here in Illinois, it's hard to remember the days when smoking was allowed at your desk or your table for dinner or even at the corner bar, even though it was not that long ago that smoking was pushed outside in most of those cases.

Even with new statistics released Tuesday by the American Cancer Society that credit fewer smokers as one reason cancer deaths have declined over the last 20 years, the battle begun 50 years ago is far from over.

As AP noted in its recent story on the anniversary, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely each year from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And a new battle is brewing over the use of electronic cigarettes with the outcome far from clear: supporters say they will help people kick the habit; detractors say they could help to glamorize and normalize smoking again and eventually lead to young people starting the habit.

We believe, along with the American Cancer Society, the CDC and other groups, that finding ways to minimize tobacco use, is an effort that needs constant attention. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC's director, was clear in his comments published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association and they bear repeating:

"Tobacco is, quite simply, in a league of its own in terms of the sheer numbers and varieties of ways it kills and maims people,"

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