“It’s the cigarette, Gary. The surgeon general just reported that cigarette smoking is causing the increase in rates of lung cancer and emphysema.” I will always remember that conversation with my dad. It happened 50 years ago, on Jan. 11, 1964. My father, an oral surgeon and strong athlete, was interested in health. He stopped smoking cigarettes that day. While Dad switched to cigars, he did so for only a few months before getting off tobacco altogether.
My mother didn’t; she continued to smoke cigarettes despite the warnings. She started smoking in the late 1920s, shortly after the industry began advertising to women. Cigarette marketers worked to break social taboos by, for example, having debutantes march in New York’s Easter Parade smoking cigarettes – their “torches of freedom.” Mom was a bit of a tomboy growing up and she resonated to industry marketing themes of independence.
When she’d start coughing, I would encourage her to stop smoking, only to have her reply that her doctor never told her to quit. In 1974, he told her there was a spot on her lung, which was subsequently surgically removed. While she lived a relatively long time (almost five years – only 17 percent of lung cancer patients live that long) she suffered far more than I ever anticipated. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death. Breast cancer is diagnosed more often than lung cancer, but lung cancer is a far more deadly disease. We’ve heard the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For lung cancer, prevention (never starting to smoke or quitting as soon as possible) is even more valuable.
Shortly after Mom was diagnosed, I decided to study cancer epidemiology at Roswell Park Memorial Institute (now Roswell Park Cancer Institute), which had a graduate program affiliated with the University at Buffalo. I had the privilege of studying under world-renowned scientists such as Fred Bock, Saxon Graham and Michael Cummings, a behavioral scientist who developed programs and policy initiatives.
I started my studies as a cigarette smoker, but quickly decided to quit and overcame my addiction with persistence (it’s like learning to ride a bicycle) and prayer. I became a counselor in the Roswell Park Stop-Smoking Clinic and for my dissertation I taught physicians how to help their patients quit smoking. After graduating, I became an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health, where I contributed to several reports of the surgeon general.
My wife and I started a family. In 1991, our 20-month-old daughter started to notice ads for Camel cigarettes featuring Joe Camel, a cartoon figure. Twelve years after my mother had died of lung cancer, the cigarette companies were getting through to our toddler! A daughter of some friends of ours was also pointing to Joe Camel ads, believing they represented “kid stuff.” Some of my research showed how adolescents who smoked chose the most heavily advertised brands, such as Marlboro and Camel. Cartoon characters were removed from cigarette ads in 1998, as part of a settlement to major tobacco litigation.
The 50th anniversary edition of the surgeon general’s report will be released on Thursday. While great progress has been made, we could have done even better if the tobacco industry had not targeted children and misled Americans about the dangers of smoking. I hope my story will inspire some people who smoke to want to quit. You can do it! Help is available at 1-866-NYQUITS.