50 years since historic report links smoking to cancer

Friday 10 January, 2014

Health organisations call for action in new frontier of availability as tobacco remains no.1 cause of preventable death & disease 

On the eve of 50th anniversary of the first U.S Surgeon General’s report to link smoking with cancer two of Australia’s leading health organisations have called for availability of tobacco to be the new frontier in tobacco control as research shows that some smokers are still in denial about the damage they’re doing to their health.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health and the beginning of modern tobacco control.

Quit Victoria Executive Director Fiona Sharkie said the release of the US Surgeon General report was a seminal moment in public health.

“Back in the 1964, more than half of Australian men and more than a quarter of Australian women smoked. You could smoke in your office, in restaurants, in your car and tobacco commercials were all over TV- it was a way of life,” she said.

“The news that smoking caused cancer and death came as a bombshell to the public, the media and the medical community.

“Within a few years, this landmark report prompted countries all over the world to take the first steps towards reducing the devastating harms caused by tobacco including broadcast bans and text health warnings.”

In the 50 years since the release of the report, 30 additional Surgeon General's Reports have added to the community’s knowledge and understanding of the devastating health and financial burdens caused by tobacco use.

During that time, Australian state and territory governments have implemented a range of tobacco control measures including bans on advertising and on smoking in workplaces, pubs and clubs and a range of other outdoor areas as well as point-of-sale bans and plain packaging.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said Australia had made incredible progress over the last 50 years in reducing smoking rates but it was time to look at new ways to tackle the health burden caused by tobacco on the community.

“Smoking rates have halved since 1977 but tobacco is still the number one cause of preventative death and disease in Australia and kills 15,000 people every year,” he said.

“It’s time for governments to start to look at ways to reduce the availability of tobacco.  It’s been 50 years since we first found out that smoking caused cancer. We need to be asking if it’s appropriate for such a deadly product to be more widely available than a loaf of bread.”

The anniversary comes as new data reveals a quarter of Victorian smokers still believe the health effects of smoking have been exaggerated.

The Perceptions about Health effects of smoking and passive smoking among Victorian adults 2003-2011 report found:

  • One in ten current smokers do not believe smoking causes illness
  • Only a quarter of current smokers can spontaneously link smoking with heart attacks
  • Fewer than 10% of current smokers can connect smoking with asthma, gangrene, eye problems or pregnancy problems  
  • Only half of all smokers can spontaneously link smoking with lung cancer

Ms Sharkie said it was concerning that one in four current smokers still believed that the health effects of smoking had been exaggerated despite 50 years having passed since the U.S Surgeon General report.

“It is encouraging however that this research shows awareness of the effects of second-hand smoke on children appears to have increased dramatically over the years,” she said.

“Recognition that passive smoking causes harm to unborn babies and miscarriage was up from 34% in 2007 to 64% in 2011.

“Overall, the report found strong public awareness of the harms of smoking but we still have more work to do when smoking cuts short so many lives each year.”