Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s critical contribution to tobacco control was reflected in both the commemoration of the pivotal 1964 surgeon general’s report concluding for the first time that smoking caused lung cancer, and with the latest report showing a lengthening number of diseases caused by smoking.
Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris D. Lushniak’s report was aimed at anyone who still thought that the dangers of smoking are being somewhat exaggerated. The report shows that the habit is the cause of diabetes, colorectal and liver cancers, erectile dysfunction and ectopic pregnancy.
Smoking is the biggest cause of premature death in the country, killing more than 400,000 people a year. Although smoking has declined sharply from 43 percent of adults in 1965 to about 18 percent in 2012, the necessity for education about the dangers remains high.
Tobacco use is the No. 1 public health issue facing New York State residents today, according to Andrew Hyland, chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park. Despite having the nation’s highest excise tax on cigarettes at $4.35 per pack, the state still logs more than 25,000 deaths each year attributable to smoking.
From that perspective, full support should be given to the programs that have demonstrated success in addressing the problem. The latest surgeon general’s report strengthens the need to sustain what works, and that includes comprehensive statewide tobacco programs funded at levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Roswell Park’s contribution to the first surgeon general’s report included research by Drs. Saxon Graham, Morton Levin and John Pickren. Roswell Park became one of the first centers to routinely document the smoking histories of its patients, in 1938, and undertook the first case-control study of cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
Today, Roswell Park scientists continue to conduct research and education through programs such as the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition, New York State Smokers Quitline and Tobacco Cessation Center of Western New York.
Smoking rates in Erie and Niagara counties are among the highest in the state, possibly due to ready access to cheap cigarettes on Indian reservations. Because purchases of Indian cigarettes are tax-free, smokers can pay less than $3 a pack for local brands rather than the $10 a pack for national brands charged at convenience stores.
As Hyland said, the medicine for the problem is a higher tax, because higher prices tend to discourage consumption. But smokers here are not suffering the full shock of high prices because they are able to take advantage of the unique political and cultural geography that exists in our region.
The surgeon general’s report on smoking in 1964 spawned public education, higher taxes and bans on indoor smoking. While there has been tremendous progress, 50 years later there is still a lot of work to do in ending this destructive habit.