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50 years since release of historic smoking report

ATLANTA--Fifty years ago, ashtrays seemed to be on every table and desk. Athletes and even Fred Flintstone endorsed cigarettes in TV commercials. Smoke hung in the air in restaurants, offices and airplane cabins. More than 42 percent of U.S. adults smoked, and many doctors were among them.

The turning point came on Jan. 11, 1964. It was on that Saturday morning that U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released an emphatic and authoritative report that said smoking causes illness and death — and the government should do something about it.

In the decades that followed, warning labels were put on cigarette packs, cigarette commercials were banned, taxes were raised and new restrictions were placed on where people could light up.

“It was the beginning,” said Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan public health professor who is a leading authority on smoking and health.

It was not the end. While the U.S. smoking rate has fallen by more than half to 18 percent, that still translates to more than 43 million smokers. Smoking is still far and away the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.

Nevertheless, the Terry report has been called one of the most important documents in U.S. public health history, and on its 50th anniversary, officials are not only rolling out new anti-smoking campaigns but reflecting on what the nation did right that day.

The report's bottom-line message was hardly revolutionary. Since 1950, head-turning studies that found higher rates of lung cancer in heavy smokers had been appearing in medical journals. A widely read article in Reader's Digest in 1952, “Cancer by the Carton,” contributed to the largest drop in cigarette consumption since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1954, the American Cancer Society announced that smokers had a higher cancer risk.

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One of the 10 beagles involved in an experiment smokes a cigarette through a machine linked to its windpipe by a plastic tube to test any link between smoking and emphysema, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in East Orange, New Jersey, Nov. 28, 1966.

(AP)

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