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50 years of tobacco control extended lives of 8 million Americans, study claims

In 1964, the U.S. surgeon general first came out with a report detailing the significant health risks associated with smoking cigarettes.

Now, 50 years later, the report’s positive effects are still being felt in the United States.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has concluded that the surgeon general’s report, along with various other tobacco control efforts, have significantly extended the lives of 8 million Americans – adding nearly 20 years to their life expectancy.

“The 1964 report, in many ways, was a watershed event for public health,” senior author David Levy, a population scientist at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, told FoxNews.com. “By that time, sufficient evidence had accumulated to demonstrate that smoking cigarettes has a profoundly negative effect on an individual’s health. Following that publicity, a number of events occurred that really caused smokers to quit – taxes on cigarettes, smoke free air laws, bans on advertisements and health reporting.”

In the 1960s, more than 40 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes, but now, only 20 percent of adults continue to smoke – a decrease Levy attributes to the surgeon general’s warning.  To really gauge the magnitude of the report’s effects, Levy and his team analyzed smoking rates over the past 50 years, in relation to people’s ages, when they started smoking and other factors.

The researchers found that since 1964, 17.6 million deaths could be attributed to smoking in the United States.  Of this number, 6.6 million occurred in people below the age of 65, equaling a substantial loss due to death and illness among the working age group, Levy said.

However, the team also used statistical modeling to determine what mortality rates would have looked like if the surgeon general’s report had never occurred and tobacco control efforts had never been utilized.  They then compared these hypothetical death rates to the actual death rates, estimating that 157 million years of life were saved – translating to 19.6 additional years of life for each smoker who quit.

“Many of the people that quit initially were younger people,” Levy said.  “People usually quit in their 20s or 30s, or they quit later on in life when they experience severe health problems.  But the reductions have occurred across the board.  In particular there’s been much less association of smoking with the young.”

While this is very positive news for the millions of smokers who quit, Levy said there is still a long way to go in order to save more lives.  According to the annual cancer statistics report from the American Cancer Society, lung cancer remains the deadliest form of the disease – leading to one in four cancer deaths.

Levy said it’s important to continue with tobacco control, since it has had such a substantial effect.  He also noted that the rise of e-cigarettes could be beneficial in helping people quit, as long as smokers completely make the switch from regular cigarettes to the electronic kind.

“Eight million have avoided death due to smoking, but we still have a substantial number of people who are dying from smoking,” Levy said. “…This is an example of an important public health event.  This is something that also provides lessons concerned with trends in obesity; changing prices and educational campaigns can have an important effect.”

The research was conducted by scientists at the Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network (CISNET) and was funded by the National Cancer Institute.