Tobacco Companies Highlight Deadly Health Effects of Smoking

December 01, 2017|11:13 a.m.| Marcus Plescia and Erin Boles Welsh

By the time the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in 1621, tobacco was an established agricultural commodity. John Rolfe is credited with introducing commercial cultivation of tobacco in Jamestown in 1612, with the first shipment sent to England in 1617. Even then, critics raised concerns about the adverse health effects of tobacco, including King James I, who described it as “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”

Today, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, claiming close to 500,000 lives and costing approximately $170 billion in healthcare expenses each year. This accounts for more deaths than “murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol combined.”

This last statement comes directly from one of five corrective statements that, beginning Nov. 26, tobacco companies will be required to publish for six months in newspapers and on national television. In 2006, a federal court held that cigarette manufacturers and tobacco trade organizations had systematically deceived and defrauded the American public, finding them guilty of breaking civil racketeering laws, misleading the public about the dangers of smoking, and marketing to children. Corrective statements from the tobacco industry will acknowledge the health hazards of smoking and secondhand smoke, the addictiveness of nicotine, the lack of health benefits in light or mild cigarettes, as well as deliberate efforts to engineer cigarettes to maximize addiction. These statements are intended to dissuade tobacco companies from future misconduct. However, after years of abuse, misinformation, and malpractice, we deserve more than an apology. We deserve change. 

Despite significant progress in reducing smoking, tobacco use remains one of the most important public health concerns of our time, causing cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and many other health conditions that contribute to premature death and diminish quality of life. In order to educate the public and prevent these outcomes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funds tobacco control programs in every state, helping to reduce youth access to tobacco and ban smoking in public places. In many states, efforts are underway to raise the minimum age of tobacco sales to 21, increase the tobacco tax by $1.50 per pack, pass comprehensive smoke-free laws, and increase funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs. State tobacco control programs and health departments will continue to lead these efforts with the support of public health leadership across the nation.

Preventing the tobacco industry from engaging in future misconduct and misrepresentation is critical. But we need more than just a statement or apology. We know what works to reduce tobacco use and save lives, and hope that these court-ordered corrective statements are just the beginning in galvanizing the public and policymakers to make further strides toward ending our nation’s longstanding and lethal addiction to tobacco.

Marcus Plescia is chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Erin Boles Welsh is chair of the Tobacco Control Network and Tobacco Control Program Manager at the Rhode Island Department of Health.