Durbin: The Surgeon General's First Report on Smoking Was a Turning Point, But We Still Have a Long Way to Go

Shares stories of two Illinois women impacted by smoking

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Tobacco Use, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin spoke on the United States Senate Floor today to recognize the landmark report and the progress that has been made since it first sparked a public debate on the public health impact of smoking half a century ago. Today, Durbin also called for a renewed commitment to halting the still ongoing and deadly epidemic of tobacco, particularly among young people. 


“There’s an issue that is very important to me personally, but it turns out it is important to a lot of people: tobacco. I lost my father to lung cancer. My attitude toward tobacco and smoking I am sure is a product of that,” Durbin said.


“Today, if you walked into a room and did what people did normally 25 years ago and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one up, people would say, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ That used to be normal. Thank goodness it isn’t any longer, because fifty years ago, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a landmark report that for the first time conclusively linked tobacco to lung cancer and heart disease.”


During today’s Floor speech, Durbin spoke about the success of tobacco control measures like prohibiting smoking in public places and warning labels on tobacco products. Durbin – who first introduced legislation to ban smoking on airplanes in 1987 – has been a leader in efforts to inform consumers about the risks of tobacco use and reduce its public health impact.

Today, Durbin shared the stories of two Illinois women who smoked cigarettes. Sharon, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer at the age of 37, appeared last year in the Centers for Disease Control’s federally funded anti-smoking campaign. Kim, from Rockford, Illinois, was urged to stop smoking by her young son, and received support to quit after calling the Illinois tobacco quit line, run by the American Lung Association.

Although smoking among American adults has been reduced by half since the Surgeon General’s landmark report, tobacco use is still the nation’s number one preventable cause of death. Today, Durbin called attention to what a recent Surgeon General’s report has called a “pediatric epidemic” of tobacco use among young people. In particular, Durbin highlighted the popularity of products like flavored cigars and e-cigarettes – available in shopping malls – that release appealing fruit and candy-flavored vapors.


Yesterday, following a primetime broadcast of the Golden Globes that featured prominent images of celebrities smoking e-cigarettes, Durbin was joined by three other Senators in sending letters to NBC Universal and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association asking that they take action to ensure that future broadcasts avoid the glamorization of smoking and protect the health of young fans. In today’s speech, Durbin said: “Tobacco companies continue to prey on children. They push products like e-cigarettes. We just had the Golden Globe Awards, and some of these red hot actors and actresses who we all love to watch in movies were puffing away on their e-cigarettes, and I thought, you’re killing the next generation of fans in your movies.”


Responding to the growing popularity of tobacco products like e-cigarettes among young people, in September, Durbin and eleven other Members of Congress called on nine e-cigarette makers to provide additional information regarding the sale, distribution, labeling, and marketing of their products to children and teens. Currently, e-cigarettes are not subject to federal laws and regulations that apply to traditional cigarettes such as the prohibition on selling to persons younger than 18, distribution of free samples, television and radio ads, and having characterizing fruit flavors that appeal to kids. A copy of that letter is available here.


Tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States. Every year, tobacco use kills over 440,000 Americans – accounting for one in five deaths. The U.S. Surgeon General, the CDC, and the National Cancer Institute have concluded that tobacco causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, and lung diseases. Smoking costs the United States about $193 billion each year in health care expenses and lost productivity.


The full text of Durbin’s prepared remarks is below:


Remarks by Senator Richard J. Durbin

50th Anniversary of Surgeon General’s Report

January 15, 2014


On Saturday, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s landmark report that for the first time conclusively linked smoking and tobacco use with lung cancer and heart disease. 


Fifty years ago, it was common for people to smoke in offices, airplanes, elevators, or even here in Congressional hearings. 


In 1964, 42 percent of American adults smoked.


It is almost hard to imagine, but until a few months before the report was released, even the Surgeon General himself smoked cigarettes.


We’ve certainly come a long way since 1964, and the Surgeon General’s report played a pivotal role in paving the way for the tobacco control measures that are now commonplace. 


Today we expect measures like warning labels on cigarette cartons, keeping cigarette commercials out of television, taxes on cigarettes, and the now ubiquitous “no smoking” signs.


Thanks to these common-sense tobacco control measures, smoking among U.S. adults has been reduced by half.


The report released by Surgeon General Luther Terry in 1964 was a turning point in the fight against tobacco. 


But we still have a long way to go.


Approximately 44 million Americans - nearly 1 in every 5 - still smoke, and more than 440,000 Americans die every year from tobacco-related causes. 


Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that over the last 50 years about 8 million premature smoking-induced deaths were avoided, thanks to tobacco control measures. 


However, the study also notes that despite this progress, more than 17 million Americans died prematurely from tobacco over the last 50 years.


According to a Surgeon General’s report released in March 2012, tobacco use among youth is a “pediatric epidemic” and is the number one cause of preventable and premature death in this country.


The report also found that every day, 700 young people become new regular smokers, and of these new smokers, one-third will eventually die from tobacco-related causes.


This isn’t news to the tobacco industry. 


Our nation pays the financial burden of tobacco use through $96 billion in annual medical costs and $97 billion in lost productivity due to premature death. 


At the same time, tobacco companies invent new ways to generate profits and entice young people to pick up this deadly habit.


90 percent of adult smokers began smoking before they graduated from high school, which is why tobacco companies continue to target America’s young people.

Targeting kids


Pushing products like e-cigarettes -- available in shopping malls -- that release appealing fruit and candy-flavored vapors, is one of their most recent tactics. 


Unfortunately, it’s working. 


Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control released new data showing that the use of e-cigarettes among our nation’s kids is on the rise. 


The report raises concerns that for young people e-cigarettes could be a gateway to smoking traditional cigarettes. 


More than 3.6 million kids under the age of 18 are current smokers, and each day more than 3,400 kids try smoking a cigar for the first time. 


This graph shows both how far we have come to reduce use of cigarettes, but also that we still have work to do.


Between 2000 and 2011, consumption of cigarettes in the U.S. decreased 33%.


During that same time period, the use of loose tobacco and cigars increased 123%.


Cigar manufacturers attract these new young smokers with flavored cigars, like cherry, sweet chocolate, and grape, that are clearly meant to appeal to kids.


Over the last 50 years we have seen the growing popularity of tobacco products like smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, candy-like flavored cigars, and nicotine candies that look like the breath mint Tic-Tacs.


All these new products use crafty marketing and tax loopholes to appeal to and addict young people.


That is why I have called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to expand and assert its regulatory authority over tobacco products, like e-cigarettes and flavored cigars. 


Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are not subject to federal age verification laws.


And although we do know that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, without FDA regulation, we can’t even be sure what other dangerous ingredients are in them.


This Congress, Senator Blumenthal joined me in introducing the Tobacco Tax Parity Act, a bill that will close gaping loopholes in how tobacco products are defined and taxed. 


This bill would end the exploitation of tax loopholes and tax all tobacco products at the same level as cigarettes.


That means taxing roll-your-own tobacco and pipe tobacco at the same level.


That means raising the tax on a container of smokeless tobacco from today’s 11 cents to $1-- the same as a packet of cigarettes.


That means raising the tax on cigars, which are currently taxed at no more than 46 cents per a cigar.


Closing the loophole would generate $3.6 billion in much needed revenue, prevent manufacturers from gaming the system, and save lives.  


I would like to share the story of Sharon, a 52 year old women from Illinois.


Sharon started smoking when she was 13 and, she said, it seemed like everyone was doing it.


After her first puff, she quickly went from being a casual user to a full blown addict with an expensive habit.


When Sharon was 37 she was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. 


Thankfully, radiation and surgeries saved Sharon’s life, but she had to have her voice box removed and now speaks through an electrolarynx. 


Last year, Sharon was courageous enough to allow her story to be used as part of the Center for Disease Control’s 12-week anti-smoking campaign.


This was a federally funded, national anti-tobacco campaign with hard hitting ads showing the devastating effects of smoking.


Compared to the $10 billion a year the tobacco industry spends on marketing, the CDC campaign cost $50 million -- funded largely by the Prevention and Public Health Fund created in the health care reform law.


CDC expects the campaign to help up to 50,000 people quit and calls to the tobacco quit line to double.


One of those callers to the quit line was a woman named Kim in Rockford, Illinois.


She was watching an ad with her son that showed the true and devastating effect of smoking on a North Carolina woman named Terrie.


Kim said the commercial scared her and that her son turned to her and said “mom, you need to quit.”


Kim called the Illinois tobacco quit line, run by the American Lung Association, and was connected to a nicotine replacement patch program.


CDC’s anti-smoking campaign is one of the many tobacco control and prevention measures that is saving lives and shows that we must continue investing in effective tobacco control measures.


This week, we commemorate the importance of the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health and the many important legal and cultural changes it touched off in this country.


But as we look around at the proliferation of new products and see the number of kids who are being courted by the tobacco industry, let’s continue our work.  We’re not done.


With the right commitment we can spare future generations of young people from the deadly epidemic of tobacco use.