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50 Years of Smoking Progress? Don’t Celebrate Just Yet

It’s been 50 years since the Surgeon General’s landmark report that smoking causes lung cancer. So what have we accomplished in the last five decades? Aside from widespread tobacco reform due to the anti-smoking movement, adult smoking rates have dropped 58 percent. Studies show 8 million Americans have avoided premature death and smoke-free laws now protect the public from secondhand smoke. However, we should not be too quick to celebrate.

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LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

“Public health officials should be proud of these achievements, but there is still plenty of room for improvement,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Smoking is being linked to an increasing number of cancers and other serious health issues. There are many reasons to quit smoking, and every year we find more.”

The 50th anniversary report, The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress, links smoking to a growing list of related diseases and chronic health conditions including diabetes, arthritis, liver cancer, colorectal cancer, vision loss, tuberculosis, erectile dysfunction and lowered immune function. The recent death of Marlboro man Eric Lawson due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) highlights yet another smoking-related disease afflicting longtime smokers. Smoking was scientifically linked to lung cancer and heart disease in the Surgeon General’s 1964 report, but the years in between have added evidence that it also causes a host of other cancers: bladder, cervical, esophageal, throat, stomach, kidney and pancreatic, among others. In addition, secondhand smoke is now proven to cause stroke in nonsmokers.

Over the past 50 years, 20 million people have died from smoking and secondhand smoke. Even though smoking rates have fallen drastically since 1964, it is still a huge public health concern. “Tobacco remains this nation’s No. 1 preventable cause of premature death and disease,” said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In fact, even though smoking rates continue to drop each year, the rate is slowing, which could mean that longtime smokers are no longer quitting or that new smokers are picking up the habit.

In an effort to keep teens from smoking, the FDA recently released its first-ever anti-smoking ad campaign. Unlike other campaigns, these radio and TV ads focus on smoking’s short-term effects, such as the impact on the skin and teeth, which the FDA hopes will resonate more with teens. “At its heart, this campaign is about reaching kids who are on-the-cusp youth smokers,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. These are “teens who’ve already experimented – who are just one party away from becoming daily smokers.”

Tobacco use remains a pervasive and serious problem among Laborers, with more than a third saying they smoke or use tobacco products. Compared to today’s adult smoking rate of around 18%, Laborers face a much higher chance of developing the cancers and chronic diseases associated with smoking. No one knows what the next 50 years of smoking will bring, but it’s a safe bet that the number of health risks associated with smoking will only continue to grow.

LHSFNA Resources

The LHSFNA supports tobacco cessation with a wide variety of pamphlets, brochures and posters available in English and Spanish through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue. The Laborers’ Guide to Tobacco, Smoking: Facts and Quitting Tips and Smokeless Tobacco: Facts and Quitting Tips all offer suggestions for breaking the tobacco habit.

[Nick Fox]

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