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The Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health

Fifty years ago tomorrow, one of the most significant events in the history of consumer protection occurred. The U.S. Surgeon General, Luther Terry issued a report that linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. The report was so significant that it had to be released on Saturday to avoid causing ripples in the stock market.

Not only was it a landmark report dealing with the risk of smoking, and running counter to the tobacco industry million dollar disinformation campaign, but it would have a far reaching affect on practically every aspect of American life.

At the time, many doctors smoked, as did one of the report's experts, a Harvard chemist with a four-pack-a-day addiction. He, like millions of Americans was diagnosed with lung cancer within a year of the report's release, and like millions of Americans, he died of that lung cancer.

From the perspective of defective products and consumer protection, the Surgeon General's Report ushered in an era of greatly improved awareness of the threat posed by defective products and products that were dangerously designed. It is estimated that the resulting changes have save 8 million deaths from smoking.

Safety would finally become a concern of the automakers, and seat belts, better tires, brakes, and safety glass would all become standard within a short time. Highways were designed with a view towards creating safer driving conditions. Other consumer products, like fans, heaters and lawn mowers all received safety upgrades.

The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act were enacted and the Environmental Protection Agency was created to enforce those laws. As much as anything, the Surgeon General's report was a catalyst for a significant change in the public's perception what would be considered a safe product. 

Source: NPR, "50 Years After Landmark Warning, 8 Million Fewer Smoking Deaths," Richard Knox, January 7, 2014

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