Skip to main content

The lesson of the 'Marlboro Man'

By John R. Seffrin and Michael Terry
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fourth Marlboro Man dies from smoking; new report shows smoking still an epidemic
  • 44 million Americans smoke, and a third of all cancer deaths caused by tobacco use
  • Writers: We've gone a long way but smoking will kill nearly half a million people in U.S. this year
  • Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of death, and we need to redouble efforts

Editor's note: John R. Seffrin is chief executive of the American Cancer Society and its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Michael Terry is the son of former Surgeon General Luther Terry.

(CNN) -- At least four former Marlboro Men, those rugged actors of the famous ad campaign, have died of smoking-related disease. The latest was Eric Lawson, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by a three-pack-a-day habit. Lawson, the face of what became the best-selling brand of cigarettes, was felled by the lethal products he helped promote.

Years ago, he became a forceful voice for tobacco control, advising children not to smoke and working with organizations including the American Cancer Society to warn the public about the hazards of tobacco.

Lawson died a week before the release of a new Surgeon General's report showing that, despite decades of progress in reducing smoking rates and holding the tobacco industry responsible for its lies and deception, a tobacco epidemic still exists. About 44 million Americans still smoke, and one-third of all cancer deaths are caused by tobacco use. The report found that a staggering 6 million children alive today will die prematurely from tobacco use. It also found the list of harmful side effects and diseases tied to smoking is growing, including diabetes, erectile dysfunction and rheumatoid arthritis.

As late as 1996, tobacco industry executives famously testified -- under oath -- that nicotine isn't addictive and smoking doesn't kill.
John Seffrin and Michael Terry

Fifty years ago this month, the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health proved that smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease. Former Surgeon General Luther Terry's landmark report launched a major transformation in the way people think about smoking and sparked a public health movement that has led to remarkable progress in the fight against tobacco use and the devastating death and disease that it causes.

When the first report was issued in 1964, the smoking rate in America was 42%. That figure has been cut by more than half, to 18% today, thanks in large part to proven tobacco control policies that discourage children and adults from smoking and protect nonsmokers from cigarette smoke.

Fifty years ago, passengers could smoke on commercial airplane flights, at work and in movie theaters. There were virtually no smoke-free restaurants. Today, smoking is prohibited on airplanes and in many airports, and nearly half the country's population is protected by smoke-free laws that cover all workplaces, including restaurants and bars. In 1964, a pack of cigarettes could cost as little as 28 cents. The average price today is roughly $6.03, an increase fueled in part by efforts to raise tobacco taxes as a proven way to discourage people from starting the deadly habit.

The tobacco industry spent decades lying to the public about the health effects of its products and waging sophisticated marketing campaigns targeting children and low-income populations. As late as 1996, more than three decades after the original Surgeon General's report, tobacco industry executives famously testified -- under oath -- that nicotine isn't addictive and smoking doesn't kill.

Then in 2006, a federal judge found the major cigarette companies guilty of intentionally defrauding smokers and potential smokers for financial gain. Because the evidence established that the industry was likely to engage in continued fraud, the judge ordered the large tobacco companies to make "corrective statements" admitting their wrongdoing.

Report ties smoking to more deaths
Piers, Coulter battle over 'potheads'

The Department of Justice and the cigarette companies last month agreed on the details of an advertising campaign that the industry must fund to air the statements in the country's top-selling newspapers and on the major TV networks during prime time. The factual, blunt statements include "It's not easy to quit" and "Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day." Fifty years after the country's top health official confirmed that smoking causes death, the industry will finally be compelled to level with the American people about the harm its products cause.

We have a long way to go to end suffering and death from tobacco use. Smoking will kill nearly half a million people in America this year and cost the country a staggering $130 billion in health care costs and lost productivity.

We must seize this moment in history to renew our national commitment to protecting public health by passing strong tobacco control laws. The most effective ways to help people quit smoking and keep children from starting the deadly habit are by consistently and significantly increasing tobacco taxes, passing comprehensive smoke-free laws that protect all workers from secondhand smoke and fully funding programs that help people quit tobacco and prevent others from starting. Lawmakers at all levels of government must make a priority of these policies to end death and suffering from tobacco use.

Without further action, tobacco use will remain the most preventable cause of death in this country, as it has been for more than half a century. For the sake of America's health, we can't afford to ignore this opportunity.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT