Jan 15 2014

50 Years In the War on Tobacco: A Model for Activism Against the Corporate Playbook

Fifty years ago this week the US Surgeon General issued a seminal report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer. The report became a landmark moment for a war on tobacco that was just taking off. At the time there was a raging public debate about the effects of smoking on our health, but today it taken for granted that smoking is a cause of lung and other cancers, heart disease, pulmonary disease, and low-birth weight.

Since the Surgeon General’s report was issued in 1964, smoking rates among American men fell from about 50% to 33%, while among women it fell from 34% to 28%. Lung cancer rates have also correspondingly fallen at about a rate of 2-3% a year as smoking has become less popular.

Smoking bans in public places like airplanes, malls, restaurants, bars, and even public parks are commonplace, particularly in California. Tobacco companies are severely restricted in their ability to advertise, and cigarette packets sport alarming warning labels and are heavily taxed. Billions of dollars of legal settlement fees from tobacco companies have paid for public education as well as for some of the damage caused by smoking.

But the battle to curb smoking rates was a dramatic one, that pitted citizen activists, scientists and some elected officials on the one hand, and the powerful tobacco industry and its allies on the other hand.

One of the central figures fighting Big Tobacco is Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine and Director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco. As a result of his work, tobacco companies twice sued the University of California, both times unsuccessfully. Dr. Glantz wrote the seminal The Cigarette Papers, a trove of leaked classified documents that played a key role in the legal fight against tobacco. He has also written the book Tobacco Wars: Inside the California Battles, and a book for high school students called Tobacco: Biology and Politics, and another book for second graders called The Uninvited Guest, a story about secondhand smoke. His book Bad Acts chronicled the behind-the-scenes story of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the tobacco companies under the nation’s racketeering laws.

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