Public Health Milestone

Public Health Milestone

Eight Million Lives Saved: Celebrating the 1964 Surgeon General's Report

An estimated eight million lives have been saved in the United States as a result of smoking measures that began 50 years ago this January, when then–U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health. The 1964 warning is seen by many as a pivotal moment in American public health and as the opening salvo in an ongoing effort to convince people to stop smoking.

According to a Yale-led study co- authored by three U-M SPH researchers and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the 1964 report, and subsequent anti-smoking measures, have significantly reshaped public attitudes and behaviors concerning cigarettes and other forms of tobacco.

Using mathematical models, the researchers found that while some 17.6 million Americans have died since 1964 due to smoking-related causes, eight million lives have been saved—a number that translates into an estimated 157 million years of life.

"We carefully recreated the changes in smoking prevalence and mortality rates by gender, age, and smoking status for all U.S. birth-cohorts going back to 1864, and then explored what would have happened in the absence of tobacco control," said co-author Rafael Meza, assistant professor of epidemiology at SPH. SPH Professor Kenneth Warner and MPH student Clare Meernik also contributed to the study.

Before releasing his 1964 report, Surgeon General Terry convened a committee of specialists who reviewed some 7,000 scientific articles and worked with more than 150 consultants to formulate the report's findings. Years after its publication, Terry referred to the report's release as a "bombshell."

Public Health Leaders Call for Renewed Push Against Tobacco Use

During a media briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general's first report on smoking, leaders from eight health organizations, including U-M SPH, called for bold action in the next phase of the fight against tobacco use. They outlined three goals:

  • Reduce smoking rates to ten percent (current prevalence is around 20 percent) in ten years or less ("10 in 10")
  • Eliminate exposure to second-hand smoke in five years
  • Put the United States on a path to eliminate death and disease caused by tobacco, which currently results in one of every five deaths

Despite the success of various campaigns and programs that started after the original report was issued in 1964, health officials say an estimated 44 million Americans still smoke—about 20 percent of the U.S. population.

"Tobacco control has been an unparalleled public health success story, and yet the remaining burden is sobering," Kenneth Warner, Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health at U-M, told reporters. "It has taken us 50 years to cut the prevalence of smoking by just over half. None of the organizations here wants to return in another 50 years to a job not done."

Michael Terry, son of the author of the first report, former Surgeon General Luther Terry, said that even with the celebration of progress at the 50-year mark, his father might not be satisfied with where the nation stands. "He would be disappointed. He would be saying: 'What have we been doing?'"
Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

For more on recent developments in tobacco control, see the latest research news on addiction.