Public Health: Contribution of Luther Terry

Subject: Health Care
Type: Profile Essay
Pages: 6
Word count: 1694
Topics: Public Health, Biography

Luther Terry was the United States surgeon general. He is remembered for his contribution to public health concerning smoking. SurgeonGeneral Terry was a lifetime smoker. He made a report unveiling the effects of smoking to human health. In his 1964 report entitled ‘Report Of The Advisory Committee of the Surgeon General of Public Health Services,’ he unveiled that smoking caused lung cancer and had the probability of causing heart diseases (Brawley et al., 2014). During this time, smoking was fashionable and common. Almost every person, children, and adults was doing it. According to his laboratory research, the lungs of the non-smokers were pink while those of the smokers were black; a disparity he attributed to effects of cigarette smoking. The research leading to the conclusions in this report was conducted by a committee of five non-smokers and five smokers. They unanimously agreed that smoking was harmful. 

Terry and his team carried the research between 1957 and 1964. During this time, people were not aware of how their actions affected the environment as well as their health. In other words, people were less informed (Chiao, 2014). Spreading information was difficult and slow as information was majorly spread through radio and newspapers. Televisions were not common during these times. This was also the period in which major technological advancements in the United States, such as efforts to explore space, were at the peak. Therefore, the government focused on the technological advancements and the actions of the civil rights movements. Added to the cold war between the United States and Russia, fewer resources were afforded to public health or environmental research. The late 1950s and the 1960s were marked by rapid economic growth and various acts set to improve and develop the United States workforce were signed. These include The Manpower Development and Training Act, Economic Opportunity Act and Vocational Education Act among others.

Terry had done two different pieces of research on the effects of smoking on public health in the years 1957 and 1959. He had made statements declaring cigarette smoking as the cause of lung cancer before the 1964 report. Therefore, before the 1964 report, he knew that smoking was harmful. However, he needed a committee to prove this to the public without facing legal prosecutions by the tobacco industry. Other than him, other independent committees had done the same research arriving at similar conclusions, but there was no action taken as the national government was focused on technological advancements and the cold war. He believed that reducing cigarette smoking would save millions of people (Lushniak et al., 2014). This is because over 40% of all American adults were cigarette smokers, which reduced their life expectancy to 65 years. Therefore, the surgeon general’s report was a turning point on how the public viewed cigarette smoking and efforts by the scientific and public health committees on curbing the effects of tobacco on human health were intensified.

Nevertheless, reducing tobacco use was not a simple task as various organizations disputed the report. Particularly, the tobacco industry was against this report. They criticized the report claiming that cigarette smoking was harmless. This led to an overall conservative stance by the public, some which believed that tobacco had no hand in lung cancer and chronic diseases, while others did not know how to quit or did not want to quit. To convince the public that his report was accurate, he needed a balanced team consisting of both smokers and non-smokers to conduct the research. The smokers were allowed to smoke in the laboratory during the research (Cole, and Fiore, 2014). However, after the research was concluded, they all agreed that smoking was harmful. Also, the picture showing disparities in the color of the lungs between smokers and non-smokers was another way to convince people that smoking was harmful. The dark color of smokers’ lungs was as a result of the smoke from cigarettes. This way he was able to convince the public that smoking was unhealthy.

The Luther Terry report unveiled the consequences of smoking. Millions of American lives were saved on this day. According to the report, cigarette smoking was responsible for over 70% of age-specific death rates. American males above 15 years were more affected by the females. This is attributed to the fact the males were more fond of smoking than the females. 42% of the Americans used to smoke during this time. This is close to half of the American population (Brawley et al., 2014). The report argued that the life expectancy of the average American had been reduced to 65 years as a result of tobacco smoking. This report increased the life expectancy levels of the Americans to 70 years since fewer people were at a risk of early deaths as a result of cigarette smoking. 

It was because of this report that people started to believe that tobacco smoking was harmful to human health. According to the report by Breslow (2015), only 44% of the American population believed that lung cancer was as a result of cigarette smoking. However, these numbers increased to 78% in 1968. This shows the effect this report had on the mindset of the people. People started ditching cigarette smoking because the report made them aware of the health hazards of tobacco use. The government also restricted cigarette use to the people over 18 years only. In a nutshell, the report informed the public of the effects of tobacco use to their health.

The report instigated a chain of research on other types of cancer as well as other effects of cigarette smoking. Terry and his committee associated cigarette smoking with lung cancer only. People still associate cigarette with other forms of cancer, for example, skin cancer. This is owing to the release of carbon dioxide to the air in the form of smoke (Gould & Maibach, 2014). This smoke is harmful to the atmosphere and leads to the destruction of the ozone layer; this is the layer preventing the sun rays from reaching the earth. The sun rays are associated with skin cancer. Luther Terry also laid the foundation of the research on chronic diseases as a result of his findings. This is because people now had a starting point unlike in the previous years where people did not know where to start. The report also led to more research on cigarette smoking, its addictive nature and the contents of tobacco.

Luther Terry’s report is remembered for his contribution to today’s public health system. Today, the percentage of smokers is estimated to be 18%. This is a huge drop from 42% for the period before the report. According to studies by Cole and Fiore (2014) deaths of estimated 8 million people, most of them below the age of 65, was prevented by this report. More studies were done, and some are still being done on the effects of tobacco use.Also, people are still learning about the addictive power of tobacco substances such as nicotine and how difficult it is to break this addiction. The people’s attitude on cigarette smoking changed from being fashionable and cool to unhealthy and deadly. Although people still smoke today, a high percentage of smokers come from the illiterate community. This is supported by the fact that 40% of people without a higher education, for example, diploma, smoke cigarettes while only 10% of people with a degree are smokers (Cole & Fiore, 2014). The report also led to the signing and the enactment of The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This act gives regulatory mandates to Food and Drug Administration to control tobacco products. 

Surgeon General’s report is still relevant today. The public, through the media, is informed of the effects of tobacco use to human health. Less and fewer people use tobacco products every year. The percentage of tobacco users, or rather cigarette smokers, has dropped by over a half since 1964 (Cole & Fiore, 2014).When the report was released, only 44% of the United States population believed that lung cancer was as a result of cigarette smoking. Owing to increased education levels and civilization, over 95% of the United States population know the hazards of tobacco use to the human health. More alternatives to cigarette smoking are being invented every day. The recent invention of electronic cigarettes and gum to help those trying to quit cigarette smoking is an example of this (Chapman, 2014). The public and the government have accepted that tobacco use is harmful. This is illustrated by the fact that it is integrated into the school curricula. As children grow, they are warned against tobacco use. The government has also increased the tax on tobacco products. This is to discourage tobacco use among its citizens. Taxation leads to high cost of the products, and fewer people are therefore able to afford it. Those that can afford are forced to consume less owing to the high costs hence reducing the effects of the product. 

Luther Terry’s contribution and findings can still be applied in other fields of public health in the future. Since the presentation of the report on the health effects of cigarette smoking, few people continued to use tobacco. The findings also pushed the government to introduce acts that controlled the use of tobacco. This strategy can also be used in other products that compromise on individual’s health such as the consumption of fast foods, for example, pizza and soda. These two are known for causing obesity which leads to a high risk of chronic diseases. They are high in fats, cholesterol, and sugars which lead to fat deposits in the stomach. These fats block the veins in the heart causing heart diseases. If the same strategy is used, where research is done to prove that they cause chronic diseases, then fewer people will consume them (WHO, 2016). This will increase the public awareness of the dangers that they face for consuming these products. Also, the government will be forced to take measures or introduce public laws that minimize the consumption and improve control of these products. 

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  1. Brawley, O. W., Glynn, T. J., Khuri, F. R., Wender, R. C., & Seffrin, J. R. (2014). The first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health: The 50th anniversary. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 64(1), 5-8.
  2. Breslow, N. E. (2015). William G. Cochran and the 1964 surgeon general’s report. Observational Studies, 1, 137-140.
  3. Chapman, S. (2014). E-cigarettes: the best and the worst case scenarios for public health-an essay by Simon Chapman. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online), 349.
  4. Chiao, J. (2014). Politics of the cigarette: Smoking, health, and the surgeon general (1960-1969).
  5. Cole, H. M., & Fiore, M. C. (2014). The war against tobacco: 50 years and counting. Jama, 311(2), 131-132.
  6. Gould, R. J., &Maibach, E. (2014). Climate discussion echoes tobacco debate. Science, 344(6181), 254.
  7. Lushniak, B. D., Samet, J. M., Pechacek, T. F., Norman, L. A., & Taylor, P. A. (2014). The health consequences of smoking—50 years of progress. A report of the Surgeon General.
  8. World Health Organization. (2016). Consideration of the evidence on childhood obesity for the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity: Report of the ad hoc working group on science and evidence for ending childhood obesity. Geneva, Switzerland.
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