Commentary: What Are We Going to Do About the Tobacco Problem? Solve It.

This month as the 50th anniversary report on smoking and health was released by the U.S. Surgeon General, I’m compelled to call attention to the man who helped strike the match that led to this landmark report.

L. Edgar Prina was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize and was a 1938 graduate of Syracuse University, my alma mater. Prina was 95 when he passed away in May 2013. He had been a Washington correspondent for the old New York Sun, and then the Washington Evening Star. He had served his country in both World War II and the Korean War. But it was a simple question he asked President John F. Kennedy at a press conference that helped spark perhaps the most significant public health battle for American lives – the battle over tobacco.

By the summer of 1961, public health leaders were becoming increasingly alarmed about the marked spike of what they firmly believed were diseases and deaths stemming from tobacco use. The American Cancer Society, The American Lung Association, The American Public Health Association and the National Tuberculosis Association called on President Kennedy to form a commission to further study that apparent linkage. Then, at a routine press conference, Prina asked President Kennedy, “What are you going to do about the tobacco problem?” That query helped set in motion five decades of ambitious tobacco control efforts that have collectively been nothing short of remarkable. At the time it may have seemed a small gesture. Of course, it was anything but.

I’ve written about “The Power of Small” and it strikes me that many of us believe that we aren’t powerful enough to change the world. But this is yet another example of a regular, working reporter who asked one small question that started the wheels in motion to affect one of the most significant public health movements in American history. As the author of a book about this and a firm believer that small acts can be the force behind big change, it seems like a natural connection.

Where in the 60s it may have been accepted practice for children to craft hand-made ashtrays as gifts for their parents at school, 50 years after the Dr. Luther Terry’s game-changing report was released, social norms have changed dramatically. I was one of those kids, and I vividly recall making one for my father who smoked. Like him, I started smoking in my teens but thankfully quit when I was 28. Unfortunately, 43 million Americans still smoke, and this anniversary may well serve as impetus for another watershed moment in the nation’s effort to finally quit for good. I sure hope so.

So as all of us mark the significance of this anniversary and underscore the lives saved as a result of it, I’d like to take a moment to remember Edgar Prina. While the nation has made great progress, we still have a long way to go to Generation Free – as in a generation completely smoke-free – but we’re getting closer every day. When we finally dislodge tobacco as the longstanding and number one culprit of preventable death, we’ll have many people to thank.

And while Edgar Prina may not be with us to celebrate, we remain grateful to him nonetheless. Adult smoking rates may have been cut in half since 1965, but we won’t rest until the answer to his question is complete: “what are you doing about the tobacco problem?” We can finally respond, “problem solved.”

Robin_Koval CEO Head Shot 2011Robin L. Koval
President and CEO

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    Elaine Keller

    January 30, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    The question Ms. Koval attributed to Mr. Prina sounded strange. There was no such thing as a “tobacco problem” in 1962. So I looked it up. There is a transcript of the press conference located here in the University of California’s Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.;jsessionid=B54CC662204308AAEB7EB875D2592ECC.tobacco03

    Mr. Prina asked the president about smoking and health, not “tobacco”. Defining the problem incorrectly as “tobacco” closes minds to potential solutions such as “snus” which has worked in Sweden and Norway to greatly reduce smoking rates. Sweden now has the lowest lung cancer mortality rate of any country in the EU.

    Another potential solution is the electronic cigarette (e-cigarette), which delivers nicotine via vapor instead of smoke. Since it is the tar, carbon monoxide, large particles, and thousands of chemicals of combustion that cause smoking-related diseases, not the nicotine, switching to an e-cigarette reduces health risks by 99% to 100%.

    If the FDA succeeds in deeming e-cigarettes to be a tobacco product, there is a danger that legislators will misunderstand and decide to restrict sales and tax these life-saving products as if they were just as hazardous as the real thing. Such measures will reduce the rate of switching and perpetuate the real problem–the morbidity and mortality caused by smoking.

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    January 30, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    This is bogus history. Prina was merely a front man for the Cancer Society, et al. He was certainly no journalist, due to asking such an obviously slanted question as, “What are you going to do about the tobacco problem?” He didn’t start any wheels in motion. That role is owned by the Lasker Lobby, led by Mary Woodard Lasker, the head of the Cancer Society. “”For the past twenty years, Mrs. Lasker has been, in the words of one federal health official, ‘the most important single factor in the rise of support for biomedical research.’ In the process, she has helped the NIH budget to explode from $2.5 million in 1945 to $1.4 billion this year, influenced Presidents, immobilized Secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare, selected health policy makers, and pushed health policy in controversial directions. Mrs. Lasker’s network is probably unparalleled in the influence that a small group of private citizens has had over such a major area of national policy. One federal official refers to it as a ‘noble conspiracy.’ Gorman calls it a ‘high class kind of subversion, very high class. We’re not second story burglars. We go right in the front door.'” “The Health Syndicate / Washington’s Noble Conspiracy” (The Atlantic Monthly 1967, Vol. 200, pp. 75-82)

    And thanks to media collusion, the anti-smokers have gotten away with six decades of deliberate, systematic scientific fraud to decive the public about the health risks of smoking, and persecute innocent people.

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    Bob Tutt

    January 29, 2014 at 5:21 PM

    You just scratched up my own memory of pounding out a copper ash tray in grade school. My folks were so proud. Later in High School I was influenced by an anti-smoking poster featuring Nick O’Teen.

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    Fr. Jack Kearney

    January 29, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    Yes, many wonderful things have happened because of Mr. Prina, and many lives have been saved. But with 45 million people still smoking we have hit a plateau, and groups like Legacy have become part of the problem. It’s time for a new way of thinking. Their insistence on blaming “tobacco” rather than “smoking” sets the stage for some bad conclusions, and their resistance to electronic cigarettes shows how out of touch they are to the reality of what it takes to get people to stop smoking. How about letting us addiction counselors do our job and let go of the blind allegiance to the pharmaceutical industry?

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