Maryellen Bolcer looks back on her life as a smoker with derision and shame.
But when the Fairfield resident, now 60, began smoking at 13, it was the cool thing to do. Both her parents smoked and most of her nine siblings smoked. "It's the only thing I learned from my mother," Bolcer said. "Everything revolved around cigarettes. I never really knew anybody who didn't smoke."
That was about to change. Around the time Bolcer was picking up her cigarettes, a major report from the U.S. surgeon general was urging people to put them down. The report showed that, among other things, smoking was a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men and a probable cause of lung cancer in women. The landmark report issued 50 years ago Saturday led to many laws that have dramatically reduced the country's smoking rate. It also opened the door to legal action against tobacco companies. In 1998, the companies agreed to pay billions of dollars to state governments in what is the largest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history.
Before the report came out, smoking had an aura of sophistication around it. Much of the popular culture of the first half of the 20th century -- from movies to advertisements to television -- portrayed smoking as glamorous. Since the surgeon general's report was released, the percentage of Americans who smoke has fallen by nearly 50 percent. As many as 8 million lives were saved by it, a new study led by the Yale University School of Public Health found.
Bolcer eventually quit smoking as attitudes about the habit changed, and is now director of the Teen SmokeStoppers program at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport and runs smoking cessation classes for adults, as well.
"I believe the attitude changed because people became educated," she said. "When that report came out, you had to make a choice. A better choice was made because of education and awareness."
But with about 44 million Americans still smoking, she and many others said there's still more work to be done.
Today, only about 19 percent of American adults smoke and only 17 percent of Connecticut residents smoke. But 4,700 people die from smoking-related illness each year in Connecticut.
When the original Surgeon General's report came out, there were few limitations on where and when you could smoke.
"Basically, 50 years ago, you could smoke anywhere," said Michelle Caul, manager of health education for the Connecticut office of the American Lung Association. "You could smoke at work. Athletes endorsed smoking."
"Smoking was just so prevalent among the overwhelming majority of the population," he said.
Patients even smoked in hospitals, said Kaplan, who did not smoke. He remembered one patient who had a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure in which tube is inserted in the windpipe to create an airway. The patient made a sort of "adapter" that allowed him to smoke through his tracheostomy hole, Kaplan said.
The shift begins
Not long after the surgeon general's report came out, its seeds began to bear fruit. In 1965, Congress passed the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act requiring warning labels on all cigarette packs. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarettes ads on radio or television. Stamford Hospital's Sachs said that was particularly huge.
Today's kids have never seen a cigarette commercial on TV, whereas they were omnipresent when he was a child. "I could sing the Lucky Strike jingle to you right now if you wanted," Sachs said.
Smoking was eventually banned on short airline flights, then on longer ones. Businesses began to outlaw the practice, including bars and restaurants. Connecticut banned smoking in all enclosed workplaces, restaurants, bars, cafes, taverns and bowling alleys in the early 2000s.
Those who resisted quitting were increasingly made to feel like pariahs.
Peggie Parniawski, 55, of Stratford, who began smoking in the 70s, after the report came out, because it was still "cool." She kept smoking even when she became a nurse, urging patients to quit, but lighting up in private.
"You didn't want people to know that you smoked," said Parniawski, who is now director of nursing at Bridgeport Hospital. She finally quit about seven years ago, at the age of 48.
For Bolcer, it was losing both parents to smoking-related illnesses that led her to quit.
"It was a decision I had to make. I knew that I could have a better life but, to have it, I had to stop smoking."
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