When the cold, hard facts mean death

The 1964 report from the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory committee connecting smoking with heart disease, lung cancer and other harbingers of an early grave had such an impact that I learned the study’s cold, hard facts in elementary school and never forgot them.

That’s why I was pleased last week when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration displayed the nine graphic warning labels that will be required on cigarette packages produced after September 2012.

Or, as the New York Daily News headline put it, “Labels of Death Greet Smokers.”

Back in the 1960s, most Americans didn’t want to accept the emerging scientific conclusions about smoking. My father, a cigarette smoker then, was one of them. And, he had no interest in his grade-school daughter telling him how to live his life.

For years, cigarette manufacturers have done their best to perpetuate the myth that smoking is a lifestyle choice that doesn’t really hurt you. The United Methodist Church – which has a long history of witness against the use and marketing of tobacco – has expressed outrage in recent years at the use of marketing techniques, particularly those aimed at children.

The media has been involved in the campaigns to encourage smoking. As a newspaper reporter covering health care in the 1980s, I wrote about lung cancer killing more women than breast cancer, which is still true today. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why women’s magazines weren’t alerting their readers to these statistics, until I realized that cigarette companies were among the magazine’s biggest advertisers.

Still, the good news is the accumulation of scientific data — including the evidence of the effects of secondhand smoke — hikes in the cigarette tax and government-imposed restrictions on where people can smoke have had an impact.

A study released last March from the University of California, San Diego, showed the number of “pack-a-day” or more smokers in the United States has fallen sharply since 1965. More importantly, the study found a major decline over the decades in the number of young people who take up the habit.

This trend needs to continue.

That’s why awarning label showing a comparison between healthy and diseased lungs— with a toll-free phone number that smokers can call to learn how to quit – is good, not gruesome.

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