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50 years of life-saving tobacco control

by Nikki Smith | Analysis

11 January 2014

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Breaking news: smoking dramatically damages your health…

…it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t know this. But 50 years ago, it really was breaking news to many of the public and world leaders.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark US Surgeon General’s report, which famously outlined many of the devastating affects smoking has on health.

The report had long-lasting effects on the worldwide perception of smoking and cemented the resolve of many governments to mitigate the deadly effects of smoking on society.

In the last half century we’ve made huge leaps forward to tackle the impact of tobacco in the UK, but it’s still the single largest cause of preventable death. And news this week showed that the global number of smokers is still growing, despite the habit becoming less popular in many parts of the world.

This is simply unacceptable.

We take a look at some of the achievements of the past 50 years in tackling tobacco and – more importantly – what more needs to be done to stop the tobacco industry recruiting future generations of smokers.

The turning point

The Surgeon General’s report wasn’t the first to link smoking with cancer – in the 1950s Professor Sir Richard Doll showed for the first time that smoking led directly to lung cancer.

But the Surgeon General’s Report, and the UK Royal College of Physician’s report published two years earlier, are widely regarded as the concrete evidence needed for governments to finally start taking tobacco control seriously. Both reports summarised the link between smoking and lung cancer, as well as heart attack, stroke and the severe lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Since then the damage that smoking does to almost every organ in the body has been uncovered and it’s now clear that smoking causes over a dozen different types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, food pipe, cervix, bowel, and even a type of leukaemia.

We now know that chemicals found in tobacco smoke can damage our DNA, prevent DNA repair and weaken our ability to remove toxic chemicals from our body.

Great achievements despite fierce competition

In the 1960s, the tobacco industry was winning, with smokers making up around half of the UK adult population. Today, that figure has dropped to one in five.

The fall in smoking has been achieved despite the power of the tobacco industry and their relentless and deceitful tactics to keep smokers hooked and recruit new ones (usually children). This recruitment is crucial given that tobacco is, in the words of the World Health Organisation, ‘the only legal consumer product that kills when used exactly as intended by the manufacturer’.

There have been many tactics used by the tobacco industry to keep smokers hooked, from claims that filters make cigarettes safer (they don’t, they encourage deeper inhalation), to their failure to remove radioactivity from cigarettes. This latter example is one of many tactics that have only come to light since a US court order in the 1990s led to millions of internal tobacco company documents being made public.

In the UK (and many other countries) the response has been multi-faceted and included public education, restricting the sale of tobacco to children, advertising controls, increases in tax and crucially, development and promotion of world class, free stop smoking services.

Key UK milestones include:

  • 1965: the banning of TV advertising of cigarettes
  • 2002: a wider ban on advertising, promotion and sponsorship
  • 2005: adoption of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – the world’s first international health treaty to help combat the tobacco epidemic.
  • 2007: smoke-free legislation, to tackle exposure to second-hand smoke (which is also known to cause lung cancer) in public places
  • 2012: the ban on display of cigarettes in large shops (from 2015 point-of-sale displays will also be banned in small shops)

We’re proud to have played a key role in these campaigns.

Still a long way to go

But one in five people in the UK still smoke. And globally the tobacco time bomb continues to tick. If current trends continue, tobacco will cause one billion deaths in the 21st century.

Place this fact alongside the mind-blowing profits of the international tobacco industry – around £6,000 for every person that dies from smoking – and you see why we’re unapologetic about our commitment to ending the tobacco epidemic.

Tactics in the continued fight against tobacco

Plain, standardised cigarette pack

We’ve been fiercely campaigning for standardised cigarette packs

The UK is one of the global leaders in tobacco policy. With the ban on advertising and displays, one of the last remaining opportunities the tobacco industry has left to lure young people to their deadly products is the box itself.

We’ve been fiercely campaigning for standardised cigarette packs because evidence clearly shows that this will discourage young people from taking up smoking. In November we heard the fantastic news that the government will conduct an evidence review and bring in the legislation necessary to introduce standardised tobacco packs if the outcome of this review is positive.

One of the most successful ways of tackling smoking is increasing tax. A Cancer Research UK review published last week found that tripling tobacco tax globally would cut smoking by a third and prevent 200 million premature deaths this century. It would also increase government revenue from tobacco by a third which could then be spent on healthcare for those suffering from tobacco-related diseases.

As well as trying to reduce smoking uptake, it’s important to help people to quit. If you’re a smoker, the best thing you can do for your health is to stop, and the gold standard NHS free cessation service can really help make that a reality.

Public awareness campaigns are vital to raise awareness of this support to quit, as well as the harms of smoking and benefits of quitting. For example, this month Public Health England has launched a new campaign that shows the immediate harms smoking inflicts on the body, particularly the brain.

In the last 50 years we’ve seen some great, hard won, successes. But there’s still a long way to go to achieve the recently agreed global goal of decreasing use of tobacco by 30 per cent by 2025.

A world without tobacco would be undoubtedly a much healthier world. That’s why tobacco control efforts need to continue. Let’s hope in another 50 years the stain of tobacco on global health will have started to fade.

Nikki Smith is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK