UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

February 2014

The use of tobacco products represents the single most important avoidable risk factor for the development of cancer. It is estimated that tobacco use is attributed to at least 30 percent of cancer deaths — and not just lung cancer but a myriad of other cancers like cervical and pancreatic cancers, too.

The impact of tobacco was brought into sharp focus again last month with the recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General's report released on January 11, 1964, that brought the negative health impact of tobacco into the public spotlight. We marked this golden anniversary with the release of a new Surgeon General's report reflecting our progress in the area of tobacco control and our understanding of the overwhelmingly negative effects of tobacco on human health.

On the one hand, we can celebrate considerable progress. Fewer than 20 percent of American adults now smoke, a major decrease from about 40 percent in 1964. New national statistics suggest that we have avoided a total of 1.3 million deaths from cancer between 1990 and 2014, in large part because of a decrease in mortality from tobacco-related lung cancer deaths Sadly, much remains to be done given that about 164,000 Americans will die from tobacco-related cancer alone in 2014 and the global epidemic of tobacco-related deaths is rapidly increasing.

We in Pittsburgh have not been idle in this battle. It is noteworthy that one of the 10 members of the expert panel that advised 1964 Surgeon General Luther Terry in his epic report was Emmanuel Farber, M.D., chairman of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Today we continue a rich tradition of contribution to all aspects of tobacco-related science. Indeed three Pitt faculty members served as co-authors on the 2014 Surgeon General's report: Hillary Tindle, M.D., Steve Shapiro, M.D., and myself. Many Pitt faculty members lead research in a number of critical areas.

  • Eric Donny, Ph.D., serves as the Principal Investigator of a multi-institutional grant to explore the impact of low nicotine cigarettes.
  • Saul Shiffman, Ph.D., is initiating studies to evaluate what drives casual smokers-those who smoke “part time” - and how they might be induced to stop.
  • Brian Primack, M.D., focuses on a new form of tobacco – the use of hookahs or water pipes in the population of young people.
  • Ellen Beckjord. Ph.D., M.P.H., is working to use smart phones to deliver personalized interventions to help individuals to stop smoking.
  • Joel Weissfeld, M.D. served as a leader on the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial that demonstrated that low dose CT scanning can reduce lung cancer mortality in individuals with a significant history of smoking.

These are but a few of the members of the Pitt/UPMC community who are dedicating their lives to mitigating the health ravages of tobacco through tobacco avoidance and cessation and early diagnosis in high risk smokers.

But our activity is not confined only to our academic pursuits. In July 2014, UPMC will take the next step in improving our own environment by banning the use of tobacco products by all individuals who work in UPMC facilities for the duration of their work shifts. No more will employees cluster near the entrance of our health facilities to take a smoking break while on the job. Resources to support smokers in their quest to quit are being made across the system in advance of this deadline. We think this is an important step to improve the health of our more than 60,000 employees and sends a message that resonates with our overarching goal to improve human health. Recent news suggests we are not alone as a major drug store chain has just announced that its stores will stop selling tobacco products later this year to sharpen their focus on supporting a healthy lifestyle.

All of these efforts and more will be required to reduce the scourge of tobacco. Our hope is that in 25 years, when the 75th anniversary Surgeon General's report is out, we will be able to celebrate major victories in the war against tobacco.