The rise of non-smoking restaurants, breathable air in airplane cabins and smoke-free doctors’ offices can all be traced back to a single act 52 years ago: the United States Surgeon General’s 1964 warning that connected smoking to lung cancer.
Smoking was a common occurrence in mid-20th century America. In 1965, a year after the U.S. Surgeon General made the announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that 42.4 percent of the American population smoked — an all-time high since rates had been recorded — in comparison to 17.8 percent today. At the time, studies had already been conducted which linked smoking and lung cancer, but before the powerful tobacco industry, then-President Kennedy passed the buck to surgeon general Luther Terry.
Terry gathered a 10-person panel of experts to research the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. The panel was split 50-50 between smokers and non smokers, and Terry made sure to include people who hadn’t already put forth a public opinion on the issue, as he knew the tobacco industry would be quick to scrutinize the authority and bias of his team of experts.
During meetings, ashtrays littered the tables and a smokey haze floated in the air. One panelist — Harvard chemist Louis Fieser — smoked four packs a day. In the end, Terry’s team unilaterally agreed in a 387-page report that smoking led to a higher risk of lung cancer and heart disease.
On Jan. 11, 1964, Terry held a press conference attended by 200 reporters and made his announcement with the finished report in hand:
“The strongest relationship between cigarette smoking and health is in the field of lung cancer. There is a very strong relationship, and probably a causal relationship, between heart disease and cigarette smoking.”
In June of that year, the Federal Trade Commission voted to mandate that cigarette manufacturers “clearly and prominently” place a warning on packages of cigarettes effective January 1, 1965.
By July 1, 1965, cigarette companies would be required to place the same warning on advertising. Since Terry’s proclamation, Harvard University’s health blog estimates that eight million deaths have been prevented, half of which would have been people under the age of 65. For Fieser, however, it was too late. He was diagnosed with lung cancer within a year of the report’s release and later died of complications.