Monday, January 13, 2014

50 Years of Progress Since 1964 Surgeon General's Report? Veteran Anti-Smoking Activist Says Not Exactly

While most of the national tobacco control organizations are boasting about the amazing progress since the 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking - progress that they claim has continued to this day - one veteran anti-smoking activist is challenging this dogma, arguing that in recent years, the tobacco control movement has squandered the opporunity to reduce smoking-related disease and death. Instead of continued progress, he says, the tobacco control movement has largely been co-opted by a bureaucracy of national organizations that seem more concerned about bolstering their funding streams than fighting the tobacco industry.

This Saturday, on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 report, Dr. Alan Blum - director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society at the University of Alabama - released a new documentary that highlights what he calls "the persistent foot-dragging, fear, and squandering of funds by public health agencies, universities, and medical associations alike in ending the smoking pandemic."

Instead of being a time to celebrate our continued progress in fighting Big Tobacco, Dr. Blum suggests that both the government and the national tobacco control organizations have largely abandoned the fight against the tobacco industry and smoking and instead, have dedicated themselves to funding or seeking funding for research that makes no further contribution to the protection of the public's health.

According to a press release accompanying the documentary, Dr. Blum states: "Dr. Terry's indictment of cigarettes should have marked the beginning of the end of the Marlboro Man. Yet far from riding off into the sunset, the tobacco industry is riding high in the saddle. The 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's report should be a sober reminder of missed opportunities to curtail cigarette smoking, which remains the nation's number one avoidable cause of cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and high health costs. When nearly all government funding to fight smoking is spent on research that adds little to what we knew in 1964. It suggests that the most addictive thing about tobacco is money."

Pointing out that nearly as many Americans smoke today as 50 years ago, Dr. Blum presents a critical yet essential perspective on the current state of the tobacco control movement. He provides multiple examples of how the movement has recently squandered opportunities to reduce smoking-related morbidity and mortality:
  • In 1998, the state Attorneys General abandoned their lawsuits against Big Tobacco, essentially being bought off by the tobacco companies. The signing of the Master Settlement Agreement was motivated by the desire for political gain for the Attorneys General and money for the states. Furthermore, between 1998 and 2013, the states have squandered the money, spending only 4% on smoking prevention and cessation.
  •  In 2009, the Congress enacted legislation that gave the FDA limited regulatory authority over cigarettes. However, the FDA is ill-equipped to regulate a deadly product, has limited ability to do anything that would actually make a dent in cigarette consumption, and to add insult to injury, the tobacco companies can now claim that they are concerned, socially responsible companies that are contributing to the protection of the public's health. They can say, with honesty, that their products are approved by the FDA and that they comply with "stringent" federal regulations intended to protect the public's health.
At the end of the day, Dr. Blum argues, we don't need more research. What we need is action. But tobacco control organizations have become addicted to money and the movement's actions are designed to promote funding streams to these groups rather than to attempt to end the tobacco epidemic.

Dr. Blum's documentary - Blowing Smoke: The Lost Legacy of the Surgeon General's Report - should be required viewing for every tobacco control practitioner.

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