January marks the golden anniversary of a couple of watershed American events.
Fifty years ago, four Liverpool lads named John, Paul, George and Ringo led the British rock invasion of America. Their stardom was established when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit the top of the charts in the Jan. 25, 1964, edition of Cash Box magazine.
The Fab Four were mega-talented songwriters and performers, with charm oozing from their thick British accents and dark mops of hair that left a generation reeling. Their every whim — be it rhythm, fashion or lifestyle — was immediately adopted into our youth culture.
Unfortunately, many of their attitudes and habits were not harmless. For instance, they glamorized smoking in videos and snapshots taken by voracious photographers. There is even a blog out there called “Smoking Beatles.”
But before you whip out the iPad for a bit of nostalgia, remember this piece of Beatle trivia: Band member George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001 at the age of 58. Ask any baby boomer who was singing “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” back then, and they will agree that 58 can be the prime of life… if you are healthy.
Which brings us to the second milestone of that year. The first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, issued on Jan. 11, 1964, was a historic turning point in the nation’s fight against tobacco use. Surgeon General Luther Terry’s report spelled out indisputable evidence that smoking causes disease and death and that the government should hold tobacco companies accountable.
In the decades that followed, warning labels were required on cigarette packs, TV cigarette commercials were banned, taxes were raised and policies put in place where smoking was not allowed.
Big Tobacco initially balked at the study. After all, a $35 billion industry can be more addictive than nicotine. In 1994, industry leaders testified before a congressional subcommittee that nicotine was not addictive and were later found guilty of perjury, thanks to industry insider Dr. Jeffrey Wigand with his rendition of “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” Wigand risked his career, his reputation and his family by revealing the truth about the tobacco industry’s disregard for health and safety on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 1995.
He later testified on the industry’s knowledge of nicotine addiction and the health consequences of smoking in a court decision that led to the master settlement agreement, in which companies agreed to pay states approximately $248 billion over 25 years to compensate for the health care costs of smoking.
Tobacco companies learned Jan. 10 that “Yesterday” deceit was such an easy game to play, but now it is time to pay the piper. A ruling in the U.S. District Court in Washington ordered the industry to pay for corrective and apologetic statements in various media advertisements. The ads will be prefaced with the statement that the defendant tobacco companies “deliberately deceived the American public.” Required statements include that smoking kills more people than murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined and that secondhand smoke kills over 38,000 Americans a year.
Remarkable progress has been made the past 50 years. The United States has cut smoking from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 18 percent today. Reductions in smoking have saved millions of lives and are responsible for 30 percent of the increase in the life expectancy of Americans since 1964, according to a study published this month by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Here in Johnson County our smoking rate is 26 percent, a number I am challenged to help reduce. At company health fairs and other public events, I simply ask smokers if they want to quit. Most say yes, and I supply them with information on the Indiana Tobacco Quitline (www.quitnowindiana.com), a free, evidence-based counseling service that has helped 88,000 Hoosiers since 2006. A simple phone call to 800-784-8669 will start the process for phone-, Web- or text-based services.
George Harrison publicly blamed smoking for his throat and lung cancers and brain tumor that eventually claimed his life. He spoke the truth, and when making decisions of deathly consequences, that is all any of us want.
Nancy Voris tobacco coordinator,
Tobacco Free Johnson County,
Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County,