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 L. Koval
President and CEO