Excerpted from The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society’s new online exhibition, “Blowing Smoke: The Lost Legacy of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health.”

“Never before had the government branded a product a threat to public health. Those who later would lament the growing involvement of government into Americans’ lives would trace the trend to this landmark report.” –Lost Empire: The Fall of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company

On January 11, 1964, at a packed press conference for over 200 reporters at the State Department in Washington, DC, US Surgeon General Luther L. Terry released what would become one of the most important and most widely cited documents in the annals of medicine: Smoking and Health—Report of the Advisory Committee of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service.

“Few medical questions have stirred such public interest or created more scientific debate than the tobacco–health controversy,” Terry noted. But the findings of the 14-month study by the 10-member committee were blunt and unequivocal. Principal among the conclusions: “Cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer in men; the magnitude of the effect of cigarette smoking far outweighs all other factors,” and  “it is a health hazard of sufficient importance to warrant appropriate remedial action.”

Dr. Terry’s indictment of cigarettes as the principal cause of lung cancer was intended to mark the beginning of the end of the Marlboro Man. But far from riding off into the sunset, the tobacco industry has more than met the challenge of maintaining the nicotine addiction of tens of millions of Americans and 1.3 billion people overall (22% of the world’s population). The health and economic toll taken by tobacco remains devastating.

This exhibition commemorates—but does not celebrate—the 60th anniversary of the publication of the Surgeon General’s Report. In 1995 the New York Public Library featured the Report in an exhibition of 100 “Books of the Century.” The Report was one of 10 scientific works, including Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, James Watson’s The Double Helix, and Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity.

Drawn from the Center’s print and broadcast collections, Blowing Smoke reviews the report’s origins and the reactions to its release by the mass media, organized medicine, and the tobacco industry. It highlights Dr. Terry’s plea to physicians—the majority of whom still smoked—to advise patients to stop, as well as his leadership in urging the public health community to launch anti-smoking educational campaigns. 

The exhibition also includes sections on Dr. Leroy Burney, the first Surgeon General to state publicly that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer; L. Edgar Prina, the reporter who asked President John F. Kennedy the question that led to the formation of the advisory committee; Senator Maurine Neuberger, the first Member of Congress to take on the politically powerful tobacco industry and its allies such as the American Medical Association; Sir George Godber, the head of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, who encouraged Dr. Charles Fletcher of the Royal College of Physicians to issue a public report on the health consequences of smoking;  and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who, at the First World Conference on Smoking and Health in 1967, gave a stirring call for actions to reduce cigarettes’ devastating toll.

Blowing Smoke provides sobering lessons about the failure of government, academia, foundations, and health organizations alike to overcome their addiction to money for endless research, not action—a strategy set in motion in 1954 by the six major U.S. cigarette manufacturers when they created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (renamed the Council for Tobacco Research in 1964 following publication of the Surgeon General’s Report), which offered lucrative employment for scientists willing to cast doubt on the growing evidence of cigarette smoking as a major cause of death and disease. 

Although the state attorneys general would force the tobacco industry to shut down the Council in the late-1990s and publish corrective advertisements acknowledging that smoking causes cancer, these manufacturers, led by Philip Morris International, now portray themselves as veritable pharmaceutical companies offering not just their ever-profitable cigarette brands but also a range of smoke-free, “reduced harm” products touted by hirelings from academia, the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the American Legacy Foundation–as if addiction to nicotine were just a minor side effect.  

This exhibit includes:

  • Commentary from Alan Blum, director and exhibitions curator, University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society
  • An excerpt of the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health
  • Papers on the association between cigarettes and poor health prior to 1964
  • Advertisements from cigarette companies, including those that misrepresent research
  • Newspaper articles  and news videos
  • Commentaries prior to 1964
  • Documentaries
  • Presentations from experts
  • Photographs
  • Other primary sources

Read more on the The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society’s website.

Curator’s note on the video “Cigarettes: A collision of interests”: This is the most in depth, balanced documentary ever made about the manufacture, promotion, consumption, and regulation of cigarettes. The CBS Reports documentary was reported by Harry Reasoner and produced and written by  Arthur D. Morse. It aired April 15, 1964. (Film donated to Alan Blum, MD by J. Fred MacDonald, PhD in 1983).

This exhibition was designed by Bryce Callahan.