Tobacco Laws Have Saved 8 Million Lives — Is Food Legislation Next?

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When we think of positive forces behind public health, the U.S. government doesn't immediately come to mind. The recent ban on trans fat notwithstanding, the government has been a source of frustration for many who believe that more should be done to curb the country's biggest health threats.

But, it turns out that U.S. health officials have gotten at least one thing very, very right. Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Surgeon General at the time, Dr. Luther Terry, released a report citing over 7,000 studies that suggested smoking causes lung cancer. The report marked the first time a government official had made such a claim against cigarettes, and went in the face of enormous political pressure from the hugely influential tobacco industry. Thanks to this and subsequent reports and the regulatory legislation they inspired, the percentage of American adults who smoke has plummeted to just 20% versus 50% in 1964.

What does this mean from a public-health standpoint? A new study by the Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network has crunched some serious numbers and has come up with a pretty incredible conclusion. Thanks to the government's efforts, the study suggests that more than eight million Americans lived an average of 20 years longer than they would have without tobacco regulation.

While smoking is admittedly still a major threat to public health, it's clear that these regulations have done a remarkable job at curbing the spread of what we now know to be a dangerous addictive product with a staggering network of money and political clout behind it. Today, though, as the national public-health conversation shifts slowly to obesity, the question of just what the government should do to protect the health of its citizens becomes more important. Every day brings increasing evidence suggesting that processed foods (which, incidentally, are produced by an industrial complex that is arguably even more politically influential and profitable than the tobacco industry) is not only dangerous to your health but also possibly addictive. Maybe it's time for the government to take some hints from its own playbook. (Time)