Fifty Years of Smoking in Two Charts

In view of the continuing and mounting evidence from many sources, it is the judgment of the Committee that cigarette smoking contributes substantially to mortality from certain specific diseases and to the overall death rate.

Those words are from the surgeon general’s 1964 report (pdf) that marked the start of America’s battle against smoking. The White House releases the latest edition of the report on Jan. 17.

Fifty years ago, no laws restricted where you could light up—even hospitals allowed it. Today 26 states and the District of Columbia ban smoking in workplaces, bars, and restaurants, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The bans contributed to a big drop in exposure to second-hand smoke. In the late 1980s, about 88 percent of nonsmokers had measurable levels of chemicals that showed they were exposed to second-hand smoke, according to the CDC. Twenty years later, only 40 percent did.

The rate of Americans who smoke has dropped, too, from more than 42 percent in 1964 to 19 percent by 2011.

Teen smoking, which the government began tracking in the 1990s, peaked in 1997, with 36 percent of high school students lighting up. That number has since declined, to 18 percent in 2011.

The price of smoking has also gone up. Officials at all levels of government taxed cigarette sales to dissuade smokers and pay for the public health costs that tobacco incurs.

Public health efforts to reduce tobacco use in the U.S. have avoided nearly 8 million deaths since 1964, according to the CDC, which also notes that tobacco is still the biggest cause of preventable deaths each year: Smoking-related illnesses kill 443,000 people annually.

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