Half a century after cigarette smoking was formally linked to lung cancer, health officials are adding to the list of diseases that can be caused by cigarette smoking.
According to a newly released Surgeon General report, smoking can cause diabetes, colorectal and liver cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, impaired fertility, and immune system weakness. The report also concludes that second-hand smoking could cause strokes for nonsmokers.
“The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress” was released in honor of the landmark 1964 Surgeon General report that officially tied cigarette smoking to lung cancer. Since the first report was published 50 years ago, more than 20 million Americans have died because of smoking.
The new report concludes that cigarette smoking kills nearly half a million Americans per year. If the current rates continue, approximately 5.6 million children – one out of every 13 alive today – will die prematurely of smoking-related causes, according to the report.
In a press conference, Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris Lushniak explained that smokers today have a much greater risk of developing lung cancer than smokers did 50 years ago. Even though today’s smokers consume fewer cigarettes than those half a century ago, the changes in the design and composition of cigarettes since the 1950′s have increased the risk.
“How cigarettes are made and the chemicals they contain have changed over the years and some of those changes may be a factor in higher lung cancer risks,” said Lushniak. “At least 70 of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are carcinogens and the levels of some of these chemicals have increased as manufacturing processes have changed.”
Lushniak suggested current tobacco control measures, like price increases and indoor-smoking bans, stay in place since they have proven effective.
The number of Americans who smoke cigarettes has declined from 42% in 1965 to 18% in 2012, and tobacco control saved about 8 million lives over the past 50 years. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged the progress that has been made in the past 50 years but highlighted that smoking continues to be the single largest cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S.
“Today we’re asking Americans to join a sustained effort to make the next generation a tobacco-free generation,” said Sebelius. “I would argue that there is no president that has been more committed to preventing tobacco use than President Obama. But this is not something the federal government can do alone.”
The estimated economic costs attributable to smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke now approach $300 billion. Of that, direct medical costs amount to at least $130 billion and productivity losses from premature deaths due to smoking total over $150 billion a year.
Sebelius proposed increasing the tobacco tax to use the additional revenue to strengthen education and health initiatives around the country. “We know that one of the single most effective things we can do to save lives is to decrease smoking by increasing the cost of cigarettes,” said Sebelius. “We can continue to transform smoking from an accepted national pastime to an acknowledged health hazard.”