Forty-five years ago today, Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act into law. It mandated those warnings on cigarette packages. It was one of the results of, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States, which found that cancer and other diseases were caused by cigarette smoking. This, of course, was a claim that the tobacco companies would dispute for decades. And as we know from Oreskes and Conway’s great book Merchants of Doubt, the same scientists who were claiming that cigarettes did not cause cancer are today claiming that global warming is not real. This, of course, is a fact that the mainstream press largely ignores and continues to “report the controversy.”
When the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act was considered by the Senate in 1969, it passed with a vote of 71-8. Democrats voted for it 42-6 (88%) and Republicans voted for it 29-2 (94%). Can you image that happening today? I mean really: today. Not in some alternate universe where we knew only as much as they did in 1969. With everything we know today about cigarettes and the enormous harm that it does, there is hardly a Republican in the Senate who would vote for it. In fact, they would filibuster it and it wouldn’t even be given a vote. And when questioned, the Republicans would explain that they think cigarettes are terrible but, you know, “Freedom!”
In the end, the law didn’t have much effect on smoking. In 1984, the federal government passed another law they wouldn’t even vote on now, Comprehensive Smoking Education Act. But really, what we needed and still need are the kind of packaging that Australia has. Despite what libertarians and conservatives would tell you, companies are just fine with killing off their customers — especially if they are “free” to get kids addicted. Regardless, the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act was an important step in combating the plague of cigarette smoking on this nation. And it stands as an example of how much worse our politics have become.
Happy anniversary Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act!