In 1971, Arthur P. Mullaney, of
Randolph, Massachusetts, came up with a great idea. He asked his neighbors to give up
cigarettes for a day and donate the money they would have spent for cigarettes to a high
school scholarship fund. During the next five years the idea spread to other communities
across the nation. On November 18, 1976, the California Division of the American Cancer
Society persuaded nearly one million of the state's 5 million smokers to quit for 24
hours. A year later the American Cancer Society held the first Great American Smokeout.
The event became an annual tradition held on the third Thursday of November.
This year on November 19th, the Great
American Smokeout will celebrate its 33rd anniversary. The event has had a profound effect
on America's health: millions stop smoking for a day, and many of these people
successfully take that further and quit for good. It also has changed attitudes toward
smoking and resulted in public policies that help keep young people from starting to smoke
and protect nonsmokers from the hazards of second-hand smoke.
"When the event began, smoking was
accepted as the cultural norm," said Dr. Dileep G. Bal, national president of the
American Cancer Society, which has continued to sponsor the event. "Now smoking is
seen for what it actually is - a killer of nearly a million Americans each year."
Smokers are encouraged to put down their
cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco for 24 hours. Society volunteers provide smoking
cessation activities at local ACS offices. Hospitals and workplaces also distribute
self-help materials and information. Many communities hold rallies and parades.
To convey the image that smoking is
socially unacceptable, the Great American Smokeout has been chaired by some of America's
most popular celebrities including Sammy Davis Jr., Edward Asner, Natalie Cole, Larry
Hagman and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
The event has been effective. For
example, in 1999, 10 million Americans took the challenge. Of those participants, 6
percent reported they were smoking less or not at all one to five days later. That's more
than 604,800 adults who have taken the first step to leading a smoke-free, healthier life.
Indeed, more people quit smoking on the day of the Great American Smokeout than any other
day, including New Year's Day.
"Quitting is a process and few
smokers accomplish it the first time," said John R. Seffrin, Ph.D., CEO of the ACS.
"Because nicotine is so addictive, most people make four or more attempts before they
quit for good. The Great American Smokeout gives them an opportunity to make more than one
attempt. They get encouragement from each other, so that they will be able to persevere.
People also exchange tips on what helped them, so that they can overcome barriers
throughout the year."
The focus of the event has evolved from
simply helping adults to abstain to helping children and teenagers understand that they
should never begin smoking in the first place.
"The earlier a person begins using
tobacco, the greater the risk to his or her health," said Dr. Bal. "Of every 10
smokers, eight begin before age 18. That's why the Great American Smokeout encourages
young people to think seriously about the danger in which they place themselves when they
begin using tobacco products."
Young people are encouraged to sign a
Great American Smokeout Pledge certificate, promising that they will lead a smoke-free
life and will not use tobacco products during the Great American Smokeout.
"One of the most important
accomplishments of the Great American Smokeout is that it has helped non-smokers by giving
community leaders an opportunity to exchange ideas about how to protect people from the
dangers of second-hand smoke," said Dr. Seffrin. "In 1977, Berkeley, California,
became the first community to limit smoking in restaurants and other places and now other
communities do so too. The Great American Smokeout has also helped highlight other ideas
like workplace smoking restrictions and the federal smoking ban on all interstate buses
and domestic flights of six hours or less."
However, the Great American Smokeout
still faces many challenges, Dr. Bal said. An estimated 47 million adults in the U.S.
currently smoke and about half will die prematurely from smoking. Lung cancer is the
leading cause of cancer death for men and women. This year alone there will be about
169,500 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. More than 80 percent of lung cancers are thought
to result from smoking.
"About 3,000 young people begin
smoking every day, so we must continue to inform people of the dangers of smoking,"
Dr. Seffrin said. "More than 80 percent of smokers say they want to quit so ACS will
continue to sponsor Great American Smokeout events, and on the other 364 days of the year,
we will support smokers in other ways too, with self-help materials and information."