This Day In History: January 11

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On January 11, 1964, United States Surgeon General Luther Terry releases a groundbreaking government report announcing a definitive link between smoking and cancer.

Knowing his report was a bombshell, Terry intentionally chose to release it on that date, which fell on a Saturday, in order to limit its immediate effects on the stock market.

The link had long been suspected. Anecdotal evidence had always pointed to negative health effects from smoking, and by the 1930s physicians were noticing an increase in lung cancer cases. The first medical studies that raised serious concerns were published in Great Britain in the late 1940s. 

American cigarette companies spent much of the next decade lobbying the government to keep smoking legal and advertising reduced levels of tar and nicotine in their products. Some 44 percent of Americans already believed smoking caused cancer by 1958, and a number of medical associations warned that tobacco use was linked with both lung and heart disease. Despite all this, nearly half of Americans smoked, and smoking was common in restaurants, bars, offices and homes across the country.

Dr. Terry commissioned the report in 1962, and two years later he released the findings, titled Smoking and Health, which stated a conclusive link between smoking and heart and lung cancer in men. The report also stated the same link was likely true for women, although women smoked at lower rates and therefore not enough data was available.

The news was major but hardly surprising—the New York Times reported the findings saying "it could hardly have been otherwise." Still, the Surgeon General's report was a major step in health officials' crusade against smoking. Though tobacco companies spent millions and were largely successful in fending off anti-smoking laws until the 1990s, studies have shown that the report increased the percentage of Americans who believed in the cancer link to 70 percent, and that smoking decreased by roughly 11 percent between 1965 and 1985.

California became the first state to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces in 1995. By 2023, more than 25 states have now passed similar laws, including 50 of the 60 largest cities in America. In 2019, the Surgeon General announced a link between serious disease and e-cigarettes, an alternative to smoking in which traditional tobacco companies have invested heavily.