A report, a warning and a cloud of smoke

Surgeon general's historic day ignited a new era, but for some, it took longer


January 11, 2004|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

Smoking did not stop that day.

Forty years ago today - Jan. 11, 1964 - there was a press conference in the lushly carpeted State Department auditorium, the most commodious, dramatic, stadium-seated government space in Washington. President John F. Kennedy used it for the press conferences for which he wanted maximal attention.

Kennedy was not there. But about 200 of us members of the press were - filtered in by uniformed security guards. Immediately, we were locked down - told that until the briefing was done we could not exit under any circumstances. To national-beat reporters, this seemed melodramatic. To those of us who routinely covered obscure, acronymic agencies - Agriculture, say, or the FDIC - this was a familiar convention used when delivering delicate data that could distress securities or commodities markets.

Before the day was over, the tobacco industry was deeply distressed.

When the doors closed, each of us was given a 387-page volume, containing some 150,000 words. There was time to read and absorb it - perhaps two hours - before the briefings began.

Then, Luther Terry, Surgeon General of the United States, came to a podium and said, among a great many other things, that the volume we had been given was "the most comprehensive compilation and analysis ever undertaken on the relationship between smoking and health."

He, and the entire report , said that smoking kills.

At the time, I was a 2 1/2 -pack-a-day Chesterfields smoker and the junior reporter in the Chicago Tribune's 12-correspondent Washington bureau. I covered institutions, agencies and stories that were not on the glamour beats - the White House, State, Congress. But to me fell this historic reportorial occasion.

At that point in history, few public spaces in the United States prohibited smoking. The auditorium at State, however, was fully carpeted, so the walls displayed - as several of us noted - nine no-smoking signs.

The smoking and health investigation had been ordered by President Kennedy almost two years before. Ten of the nation's top medical experts had drawn on direct experience and the conclusions of 8,000 independent medical studies - though no new clinical research was undertaken. The data were - well - impressive. At the podium, Terry and others on his panel answered questions and elaborated on their findings. Increasingly, most of us who were there sensed this was historic.

Questions and answers went on for an hour more. What seemed an eternity had passed since my last cigarette. My note-taking was increasingly spastic.

Then, finally, it was over. In an instant of release, I and what seemed like every other reporter there poured into the lobby. Immediately, the air was opaque with cigarette smoke. Something close to 200 smokers gave a dramatic new emphasis to the appropriateness of the neighborhood's designation of Foggy Bottom.

Smoke-fueled story

I rushed back to my bureau and wrote for hours - smoking almost ceaselessly. The next day, my dispatch led the Tribune's front page; three more stories appeared inside. Right across the top of Page 1, type nearly two inches high declared: "TIE CANCER TO CIGARETS."

(This shorter form for "cigarette" was among dozens of phonically shortened words that were then insisted upon by the Tribune's ostensibly modernized stylebook.) Beneath that banner and two elaborate secondary headlines, was this:


Chicago Tribune Press Service

Washington, Jan. 11 - The government committee's report on smoking and health, released today, said flatly that cigarets are a direct cause of lung cancer and other fatal diseases, and urged action.

The committee said "there is simply no evidence that filters [on cigarets] have an effect in reducing the health hazard from smoking." The risk increases the longer one smokes, and declines if smoking is stopped.

As I continued to smoke, I wrote that the government's report concluded cigar and pipe smoking were of little significance in death rates, though pipe smoking could cause lip cancer. But it also, my dispatch went on, "cited smoking as a major cause of lung and larynx cancer and of bronchitis, and said that men who smoke have a much higher death rate from heart and blood vessel ills than others."

"The committee said that smoking is a `much greater cause of chest maladies than smog and other air pollution. Women who smoke during pregnancy have babies of lower birth weight, but otherwise seem to suffer less from the ill effects of smoking[But] the data for women, tho less extensive, point in the same direction." ("Tho," for "though," was another Tribune stylistic eccentricity.)

After several more paragraphs of details, I wrote, "The committee was not instructed to recommend action. Terry said that the public health service, in cooperation with other government agencies and private groups will `move promptly to determine what remedial health measures' should be taken."

Getting the message

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