Dr. Weeks Comment: We scientists stand firmly on the shifting sands of perceived reality.
Sept. 25, 1878: Yes, Smoking Is a Health Hazard
1878: Eighty-six years before the U.S. surgeon general issues a report confirming the dangers of smoking tobacco, a letter from English physician Charles R. Drysdale condemning its use appears in The Times of London.
Drysdale, the senior physician to the Metropolitan Free Hospital in London, had already published a book on the subject, Tobacco and the Diseases It Produces, when he wrote the letter that described smoking as “the most evident of all the retrograde influences of our time.”
Drysdale had been on an anti-smoking crusade since at least 1864, the year he published a study documenting the effects on young men of consuming ¾ ounce of tobacco daily. That study reported cases of jaundice, and at least one subject having “most distressing palpitations of the heart.”
Drysdale’s book pinpointed nicotine as the dangerous agent and reported its ill effects on the lungs, circulation system, even the skin. Havana-cut tobacco contained roughly 2 percent nicotine, while Virginia tobacco was a more toxic 7 percent, Drysdale pointed out. (Tobacco was a product of the New World and had to be imported to Europe.)
He also warned against exposure to second-hand smoke: “Women who wait in public bar-rooms and smoking-saloons, though not themselves smoking, cannot avoid the poisoning caused by inhaling smoke continually. Surely gallantry, if not common honesty, should suggest the practical inference from this fact.”
The prolific Drysdale wrote on a variety of other related subjects as well, including medicine as a profession for women and issues related to population control.
Despite Drysdale’s warnings, and despite the establishment of numerous anti-smoking movements, little was done to curb smoking anywhere in the world. Though physicians and scientists understood there were numerous health hazards associated with the practice, the number of smokers increased dramatically in the first half of the 20th century. Thank you, Madison Avenue. Thank you, Hollywood.
The turning point probably came in 1957, when then-Surgeon General Leroy Burney reported a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. It was left to Burney’s successor, Luther Terry, to lower the boom.
Under Terry’s direction, a special committee produced Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General. This 1964 bombshell — so volatile that it was released on a Saturday to minimize the effect on the stock market — began a massive change in people’s attitudes toward smoking.
And to think it only took 86 years.