The generation that gave their lives to cigarette smoking

This article is going to talk about the generation born between the wars, and how a plague of smoking-related illnesses killed so many of them that it amounted to about 1 in 5 deaths of their entire generation.

Yes. You read that right – 1 in 5 people. And that is a really big number with lots of zeros behind it. A number so big that it totally dwarfs the total deaths of both world wars.
And yet most people would not have any idea that this was a real thing.

Let us look into this over several steps.

Tobacco use pre 1900’s.

In the past, tobacco used to be consumed as snuff, chewing tobacco, or with a pipe. It was generally only consumed by men, as it was seen as quite an unlady-like thing to do.
It was largely grown in the US and then exported around the world, but overall it was not a widely accepted or adopted practice.

Tobacco use in the early to mid 1900’s.

During the early years of the 19th century, the percentage of adults who smoked started to rapidly climb. There were 2 main causes for this.

The first was the invention of machinery that mass-produced cigarettes making it both widely available and much easier to consume.

The second was the use of the new science of marketing and advertising, especially via the medium of movies. These provided a very powerful and pervasive glamorisation of smoking in the Hollywood movies. All the popular actors were smoking, and movies showing rooms full of people smoking was the norm. All my childhood heroes were heavy smokers – at least they were shown that way in their movie roles. Whether it was a scene in a bar, a restaurant, a board meeting, or even at a dinner table – they all had ashtrays. And these ashtrays all had lit cigarettes in them.

Tobacco use peaked in 1940-1960.

The smoking rates in the western countries continued to soar until it peaked at about 40% of all adults during the 1940’s to 1960’s.

This group of people were generally born between World War 1 and World War 2, so born between about 1920 – 1940.

Tobacco and the illness tsunami.

Fast-forward this group 20-30 years to the 1960’s to 1980’s, and the long-term effects of smoking were coming through in a big wave of smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

We know now that at least one in 2, and probably closer to 2 out of 3 long term smokers die early from smoking, whether it be from lung cancer, emphysema, other cancers, heart disease, or other smoking related diseases. Everyone knows this now of course, but they didn’t then.

These illnesses and deaths started to show up when the pre 1940’s born smokers started to drop off like flies in the 1960’s.

The Tobacco Industry fights back as it comes under attack.

This plague of smoking-related deaths became obvious to everyone, including the health authorities, and so governments started to act to protect public health. Restrictions started to be placed on advertising. Health awareness campaigns were started up. Very gradually, the message that smoking was bad for you finally got out to the public.

It rapidly became very difficult for the tobacco companies to pretend they knew nothing about this themselves. However, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that evidence finally came out that they knew about the harmful effects of smoking many years before the governments did. They had even been steadily increasing the nicotine content of cigarettes to provide a better addictive hook for creating long-term users.

The tobacco industry was, (and they still are), extremely well-funded, given that 40% of adults were feeding these companies massive sums of money on a daily basis. And they used these funds to provide as much interference with these government health initiatives as possible.

Ever since, the tobacco industry has been involved in a constant battle to try and protect their shrinking market. They have taken recently to launching court actions on governments on the basis of ‘breach’ of trade agreements. When Australia introduced the ‘Plain Packaging’ of cigarette packets, they were taken to court by the tobacco companies and our government had to fund years of legal battles to successfully defend their right to protect the public. Since winning this legal battle, the governments of other countries have introduced, or are in the process of trying to introduce, the same plain cigarette packaging. And the tobacco industry has taken many of them to court as well.

The Smokers are under attack.

In many western countries the smokers are being harassed and pressured on many fronts.

  • The increasing taxes on tobacco. This is especially true in a country like Australia where we have the most heavily taxed and the most expensive cigarettes in the world.

A sidenote here: I recently saw a patient who finally gave up after 50 years of heavy smoking. The tipping point for him to quit smoking was when his smoking habit hit the weekly cost mark of $350 per week. This was not a cocaine user – this was an ordinary person paying Australian prices to be a heavy smoker!

  • The proliferation of NON-SMOKING ZONES. There have been constantly expanding restrictions on where smokers are allowed to smoke. Soon they will have to hide out to smoke!
  • Social pressure and disapproval. In this country many smokers are starting to feel badly judged, and to even feel like they are being treated by ‘lepers’ by the rest of the community.

These pressures have however resulted in the continuing decline in smoking rates and will give us ALL the benefits of declining smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

Back to the peak smoking generation.

Health experts proclaim that over 1 in 2, closer to 2 in 3, long-term smokers die from their smoking habit.

Where do we see that around us?

We see it in the parents and grandparents who died of lung cancer, other cancers, heart disease, emphysema, and so on.

You see, when doctors write a death certificate, the word ‘smoker’ is never used.
So we have all the lung cancer deaths caused by smoking listed as lung cancer, rather than as smoking-caused lung cancer deaths.

The actual REAL cause of death shows up when you compare large groups of non-smokers with large groups of smokers, and then see what kills them and how often, and how early.

I see this every day in my medical practice when I look at a patient’s family history and note a pattern of early deaths for their parents or grandparents from diseases such as lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. The patients are quick to point out that this group (often born between 1920-1940, and so a part of the peak smoking generation) died early, BUT only because they had terrible lifestyles and were heavy smokers. So even the younger generation feel these are not genetic conditions but rather are ‘smoking-related’.

Obvious to us now, but it wasn’t 50 years ago.

Smoking today

In Australia the smoking rate has dropped from 40% to closer to 13%. And yet this is still over 2 million people.

And the health experts who study this field still say that SMOKING IS STILL THE SINGLE LARGEST CAUSE OF DEATH in this country. This is when you factor in the smoking as being the cause of the heart attack deaths and so on for all the other smoking-related illnesses.

On the global level, The World Health Organisation’s report on smoking, estimated that a billion people will die from smoking-related illnesses during this 21st century.

That is a number too big to even comprehend.

Should smokers still be under continuing ‘attack’?

I see this in the same light as regulations for compulsory wearing of seatbelts.
It might infringe on our rights, but with good reason, good intent, and with good results.

Same goes for smoking.