Public Safety

Luther Terry was born to be a doctor. His father was the only doctor in the town where Luther grew up, and Luther would often make house calls with his father. Luther went on to become a doctor and follow a career in public health.

His career took him to work for the Public Health Service and the National Heart Institute. When President Kennedy selected him to become the Surgeon General, his career took on much more prominence.

In 1962, the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom indicated a clear link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, bronchitis, as well as cardiovascular disease. Dr. Terry commissioned a similar study in the U.S. The U.S. effort made the same findings and suggested other medical conditions linked to cigarette smoking.

While the U.S. Congress initially took no action on the dangers of smoking, the Federal Trade Commission required a warning label be placed on cigarette packages as well as advertising. The Congress finally acted one year later when anti-smoking campaigns became more assertive. It took six years to implement the legislation.

The first Surgeon’s General report was largely written by doctors who were smokers. They concluded that smoking was not an addiction. Years later, studies showed that tobacco manufacturers added chemicals to cigarettes to make them addictive. Forty-two percent of all adults in the U.S. were smokers. In 2019, fourteen percent of adults in the U.S. were smokers.

Further restrictions on tobacco use took over 15 years to come into being. These included bans on smoking in public places and airlines. It took over 50 years to place bans on chemicals designed to lure leading young adults into cigarette addiction.

Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths in America. What is the role of government in protecting its citizens from preventable deaths? Should it be warnings or bans? Should the government work toward safe uses of a product (e.g. airbags in cars)? Should the free market and the court system take on the primary role for public safety? These are questions that remain with us today in many different ways.

Just imagine what we might do to affect a faster, more effective response to issues involve public safety? Just imagine how the public interest can ever be more important than campaign contributions for getting Congress and the Executive branch of government to act? Just imagine how we can ever protect the public interest when misinformation can be so influential?                       

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“You can’t talk of the dangers of snake poisoning and not mention snakes.”  – C. Everett Koop (Former Surgeon General of the U.S.)

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