By Sarah Eilers
Today is the 40th annual Great American Smokeout. The first was held in California in 1976, and the American Cancer Society took it nationwide the next year. Smokers are encouraged to quit for just one day, which can seem much more manageable than quitting forever.
With cigarettes on our mind, Circulating Now looks at films in NLM’s historical audiovisuals collection that examine the link between tobacco and lung disease. Much of the research that informs these titles well predates the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 Report on Smoking and Health.
Rates of smoking and other tobacco use climbed markedly in the 20th century in the U.S. and beyond, peaking in the 1950s. Cigarettes were distributed to soldiers in wartime, tobacco companies recruited doctors to promote their products, and glamorous celebrities lit up. Americans adopted the habit.
Yet one might wonder: how much did scientists and physicians know about the health-destroying effects of tobacco, and when did they know it?
The answer is, quite a lot, and earlier than you may realize. Many sounded the alarm. According to a timeline published by Tobacco.org, in 1941 Drs. Alton Oschner and Michael DeBakey published “Carcinoma of the Lung” in the journal Archives of Surgery. Says the timeline, “The article noted the parallel rise in smoking and lung cancer, concluding that the latter was due mostly to the former, and included a lengthy bibliography of sources from multiple countries.” In response to the 1941 article, Edward Harlow, a chemist at the American Tobacco Company, circulated an internal memorandum mentioning that the tobacco industry was in need of some “friendly research” to counteract such findings.
In the 1954 film Tobacco and the Human Body, the physiological effects of nicotine and other substances contained in tobacco and cigarettes are demonstrated in animated sequences, and with explicit animal experiments. A possible link between pollution and illness is also mentioned.
In the early 1960s, building on his years of research, Dr. Ochsner made a film with the same title as his article, Carcinoma of the Lung. He performs surgery on a diseased lung and makes his clinical opinion clear: that with rare exceptions, “cancers of the lung are caused by cigarette smoking.”
Across the pond, scientists in the United Kingdom were investigating the link and publishing their work in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. British Information Services issued a film titled Smoking and You in 1963 that includes this emphatic sequence.
As is well-known, American tobacco companies were remarkably successful at suppressing public information about the risks of smoking and tobacco use. It’s worth noting that when Andrew H. Tisch, chairman of the Lorillard Tobacco Company, was asked by a Congressional panel in 1994—30 years after the Surgeon General’s Report—whether he knew that cigarettes caused cancer, he replied under oath, “I do not believe that.”
At the same hearing, six other tobacco executives joined Tisch in declaring that they did not think nicotine was addictive. The U.S. Department of Justice later investigated each of them for perjury, but didn’t issue indictments. By June 1996, all seven executives had resigned.
Besides the three films mentioned above, NLM’s historical audiovisuals digital collection includes Emphysema, 1976. Smoking and Lung Cancer, 1965 will be digitized in December 2015, and not yet digitized but available through other means are The Battle to Breathe, 1968, Smoking and Health: A Report to Youth, 1969 and Getting Through, 1967, which features actor Burt Lancaster. All of these films are pre-1970, but as knowledge and concern about tobacco’s effect on health increased, many more followed.