THURSDAY, Nov. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Dangerous myths about tobacco persist 50 years after the U.S. Surgeon General first warned Americans about the harm caused by smoking, experts say.
The first Surgeon General's Report on smoking and health was released in January 1964.
"Since 1964, smoking rates have dropped by more than half as a result of successful education, legislative and smoking cessation efforts. Still, lung cancer remains the number one cancer killer and the leading preventable cause of death in the United States," Dr. Lewis Foxhall, vice president for health policy at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said in a center news release.
One of the biggest myths is that there's been a dramatic decline in the number of smokers. However, nearly 44 million (about one in five) Americans still smoke.
"The current percentage of smokers is 19 percent. That's significantly lower than the 42 percent in 1965. However, the actual number of people smoking today is close to the same," Foxhall said.
In 1965, about 50 million Americans smoked. "Because our population is much larger, it just seems like we have a lot fewer smokers," Foxhall said.
Another myth is that infrequent, so-called "social" smoking is harmless. But any smoking is dangerous.
"Science has not identified a safe level of smoking, and even a few cigarettes here and there can maintain addiction," David Wetter, chair of health disparities research at MD Anderson, said in the news release. "If you are a former smoker, data suggests that having just a single puff can send you back to smoking."
Many people wrongly believe that smoking outdoors eliminates the dangers of secondhand smoke. However, there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and even brief exposure can cause harm. Families should ban smoking both in and around the home, Wetter said.
Another myth is that e-cigarettes, cigars and hookahs are safe alternatives to cigarettes. They all contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.
"The tobacco industry comes up with these new products to recruit new, younger smokers," Dr. Alexander Prokhorov, director of the Tobacco Outreach Education Program at MD Anderson, said in the news release. "And, they advertise them as less harmful than conventional cigarettes. But once a young person gets acquainted with nicotine, it's more likely he or she will try other tobacco products," he pointed out.
Paul Cinciripini, professor and deputy chair of behavioral science and director of the Tobacco Treatment Program at MD Anderson, explained: "While e-cigarettes may contain less harmful substances than combustible tobacco, they're presently unregulated so quality control over the nicotine content and other components is left to the manufacturer."
So, he added, "At this time, it's far too early to tell whether or not e-cigarettes can be used effectively as a smoking cessation device."
In the United States alone, over 200,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer and about 150,000 people die from the disease each year, and it is estimated that smoking contributes to nearly 90 percent of those lung cancer deaths. In addition, 30 percent of all cancer deaths have been linked to smoking.
BeTobaccoFree.gov explains the health effects of smoking.
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