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Originally published: 2014-01-24 14:36:02
Last modified: 2014-01-24 14:42:31

New surgeon general's report: Smoking has costly toll on America

by Sherrie Norris

It came as no real surprise to David Willard, Northwest Tobacco Prevention coordinator, when he received the U.S. surgeon general's report on Friday that it included some startling information related to tobacco usage.

The report, "The Health Consequences of Smoking:  50 Years of Progress," calls the epidemic of cigarette smoking during the last century "an enormous and avoidable public health tragedy."

According to Willard, the report estimates that about 5.6 million American children (one in every 13) will die prematurely from smoking-related diseases -- unless the current smoking rates drop. 

In North Carolina, he said, that represents about 180,000 children alive today who ultimately will die prematurely because of smoking.

The report marks the 50th anniversary of the historic first surgeon general's report, which concluded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer in men.

Since that 1964 report, evidence has linked smoking to diseases of almost all of the body's organs, and establishes more new links to diabetes, colorectal cancer and liver cancer, Willard said.

The report also explains that smokers today have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than they did in 1964, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes. The findings indicate a correlation to the design and composition changes of cigarettes  and the fact that at least 70 of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are known carcinogens.

The report also notes that in just the last 50 years, 20 million Americans have died because of smoking, and that the tolls on life and finances are huge: Smoking kills close to half a million Americans a year and costs more than $289 billion a year in direct medical care and economic loss. 

In North Carolina alone, smoking claims the lives of about 12,000 adults age 35 and older each year, and costs more than $3.5 billion in medical care and lost productivity.

Willard said that new data confirms that in North Carolina, one out of every five people smoke cigarettes, which means that more than 2 million citizens of our state still smoke cigarettes. "That ranks North Carolina 28 in the country for smoking rates," he said.

Referring to an earlier interview, indicating that smoking among youths has decreased, Willard said that this anniversary report indicates that smoking rates in North Carolina's middle school ages have dropped from 9.3 percent in 2002 to 4.2 percent, and the high school smoking rate has dropped from 27.3 percent in 2002 to 15.5 percent.

"That puts them currently below the national average among high school-aged kids," he said.

While these accomplishments should be celebrated, Willard said, there is still much work to do.

In addition to the 50-year-old report that directly linked tobacco use to lung cancer, Willard said he expected the new findings to report a wider range of related diseases, which it did.

"The report does conclude that smoking causes many other conditions," he said, including the following long list: rheumatoid arthritis and immune system weakness, increased risk for tuberculosis disease and death from TB, ectopic pregnancy and impaired fertility, cleft lip and cleft palates in babies of women who smoke during early pregnancy, erectile dysfunction in men, age-related macular degeneration and increases the failure rate of cancer treatment.

The report also concludes that secondhand smoke exposure is now known to cause strokes in nonsmokers.

On the bright side, Willard, said, the report finds that efforts to control tobacco use have not been in vain, and that at least 8 million early deaths have been averted since 1965. But, he also agrees with the surgeon general's statement that these evidence-based interventions continue to be underutilized.

Furthermore, studies also show that about 70 percent of all smokers have a desire to quit. 

They can get free help to do so, Willard said, by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW  (800-784-8669) or visiting 

To read the full report, "The Health Consequences of Smoking:  50 Years of Progress," go to

For more information locally, call David C Willard at the Appalachian District Health Department in Boone at (828) 264-4995 or visit