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Toward a Tobacco Free Generation

On the Release of the Surgeon General’s Report

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius

Washington, D.C.
January 17, 2014

As Prepared for Delivery

I want to extend a special word of welcome to the family of Dr. Luther Terry – our country’s 9th Surgeon General. Fifty years ago he warned about the dangers of smoking to public health.

We’re joined today by Dr. Terry’s family: his sons Michael and Luther – along with Luther’s wife Belinda; his grandsons, Luther D. Terry and Luther L. Terry III; and his granddaughter Agnes and her finance Andrew.  I understand that Agnes recently graduated from the Harvard School of Public Health – so it’s good to see that Dr. Terry’s legacy continues today.

I also want to welcome former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin,, former Surgeon General David Satcher, Ambassador Michael Froman, FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg, and a few other special guests I’ll introduce in a moment.


For all the progress we’ve made in 50 years since the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, we are still very much a country that is addicted to tobacco. And this addiction – this epidemic – has very serious ramifications for our families, our communities, and for the overall health of our economy.

So today, we’re asking Americans to join our sustained effort to make the next generation a tobacco-free generation.

Our message to the American people is that there are things each of us can do in our own communities, our own schools, our own businesses, that can make a significant contribution to ending this epidemic, saving the lives of our loved ones, and making the next generation tobacco-free.

The Challenge

I invite you to think, just for a moment, about what the loss of even one life means to a family …What it means to a neighborhood …  What it means to a community …

Year, after year, after year, tobacco use claims nearly half a million American lives.

Across the world, tobacco kills 6 million of our fellow human beings each year. 

These are more than just numbers.

They’re our neighbors. Our parents.  Our children. Our colleagues.  Our friends. Our global partners.

Now, this is not to say we haven’t made progress.  Our tobacco control efforts over these past five decades have prevented – by some estimates – as many as 8 million deaths in this country alone.

Our nation’s smoking rate is half today, what it was in 1964.

But the fact of the matter is that even with this progress, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease, both in our own country, and across the world. 

If we look around this room, the likelihood is that all of us have been touched in some way by the loss of someone in our lives, due to tobacco use.

One thing we know for sure: If we fail to act, we’ll continue to lose the lives of the people we love.

Statistics tell us that most of the Americans who will die from smoking this year began smoking when they were kids.  And that every day, more than 3,000 children try their first cigarette.  And nearly 1,000 kids become daily smokers.

If we fail to reverse these trends, 5.6 American children who are alive today, will die prematurely due to smoking. 

There are very serious economic costs as well: You may have heard a recent report on NPR that looked at the tobacco prevention efforts in Oregon.  For every pack of cigarettes that’s smoked in their state, Oregonians pay an estimated $13 in lost productivity and medical expenses.  Just think about that for a second.  Every single pack.  And that’s just in one of the 50 states.

As a country, the total economic costs of smoking now top $289 billion – that’s billion with a “b” – each year. 

A Tobacco-Free Generation

I would argue that no President has ever been as committed to ending the epidemic of tobacco-related deaths as is President Obama. 

Since the very first days of this Administration, we have taken a coordinated approach to help tobacco users stop smoking … to keep others from starting … and to use our regulatory authority to protect more consumers. 

In 2009, the President signed landmark legislation into law that gave the Food & Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products. 

Because of this new law, the FDA has been able to implement a number of potentially life-saving reforms.  Tobacco companies, for example, can no longer give out free samples to get kids hooked.  Nor can they use bogus, misleading terms like “light,” “low,” or “mild” as part of their marketing campaigns. 

These reforms had languished for years in Washington.  In 2009, President Obama got them done. 

The following year, the President signed the Affordable Care Act, which has a number of important provisions.  For example, it requires insurance companies to provide tobacco cessation services to their customers.  And it allows Medicaid beneficiaries to access tobacco cessation services at no out of pocket cost before they get sick, rather than having to wait until after.

The health care law also invests to support innovative and effective community-based projects across our country. 

Ringgold County, Iowa, for example is getting support for their evidence-based tobacco control interventions which are geared toward low income, rural populations. 

The Affordable Care Act also invests in public education campaigns that promote prevention and help people quit smoking.

One of these efforts is CDC’s Tips from Former Smokers campaign. 

Over the last couple years, the campaign’s graphic messages have helped convince 100,000 of our fellow Americans to permanently quit smoking – and to convince 1.6 million more of our friends and neighbors to begin the process of trying to quit.

And the research suggests we were able to add as many as 500,000 years of life to the American population.

We know that one of the single most effective things we can do to save lives is to decrease smoking by increasing the cost of cigarettes.  Therefore, as part of the 2009 Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization, we brought the federal excise tax to $1.01 per pack. 

This year’s budget proposes to tack on an additional 94 cents, so we can discourage even more Americans from smoking – and save more lives and resources. 

The additional revenues would allow us to provide universal early education to 4-year-olds across the country, while strengthening health and education initiatives for infants and toddlers.

Not only do we have an opportunity to save more lives by reducing tobacco use, we can also benefit the next generation by increasing the investment we make at the beginning of a child’s life.

A Call To Action

Ultimately, these actions will be most effective, if they are paired with local efforts across our country. 

Over the past 50 years we’ve been able to transform smoking from an accepted national pastime to an acknowledged health hazard.  We’ve succeeded in driving smoking out of commercial airplanes, and out of a growing number of restaurants, bars, college campuses, government buildings and other workspaces. 

Now, with the lives of 5.6 million children in the balance, it’s time to take these efforts to the next level.

President Obama believes a tobacco-free generation is within our grasp.  Acting Surgeon General Lushniak believes a tobacco-free generation is in within our grasp.  And I believe this as well.

But this is something that the federal government cannot do alone.  We have a very, very significant role to play – but it’s not the only role. 

We need all-hands-on-deck to take tobacco products out of the hands of America’s young generation. 

We need the partnership of the business community, of local elected officials, of the academic community, of the medical community, of non-profit organizations, the faith community, and of committed citizens in communities across our country.

We need more schools to follow the lead of colleges and universities like the University of South Carolina, which has adopted a tobacco-free policy.  Dr. Gene Luria, who is the University’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Academic Support is with us today. 

And we need the engagement of young people like Ryan Washington, a proud Gonzaga Eagle, from Gonzaga College High School right here in DC.  Ryan serves on the DC Youth Anti-Tobacco coalition.  Let’s have some applause for Ryan.

All across our country, Americans are taking critically important action. 

There are statewide efforts like the bipartisan movement underway in Kentucky - where Representative Susan Westrom is working across the aisle to make the Bluegrass State smoke-free. Representative, thank you for taking action to save the lives of more Kentuckians. 

There are also some very significant citywide efforts going on.  One of the cities that’s leading the way is the City of Chicago.   And we’re proud to be joined today by the Chicago Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Bechara Coucair. Thank you Dr. Coucair.

I also want to introduce you to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Dr. Jonathan Woodson.  Dr. Woodson is leading an effort across the military to stop smoking and tobacco use – and we can all agree that that deserves some more applause!


Today, we’re really at a crossroads.  Over these past five decades, we’ve learned what it will take to end the tobacco epidemic and make the next generation tobacco-free.  Scientists, researchers and policymakers have determined what works, and what steps are necessary to end this tragic epidemic.

The question is really “what kind of country do we want to leave our children and grandchildren?”

Because when I think of where we can be, I see a country where smoking is no longer considered in-vogue among young people.

I see a future for our kids where we’re not burning through hundreds of billions of dollars a year as an economy due to tobacco use.

A future where millions of moms and dads and sons and daughters and nieces and nephews aren’t lost before their time.   

I can tell you that this is the future President Obama sees as well.

This future is within our grasp, if we’re willing to work together to make it so.

Thank you all very much.

Roll up your sleeves we have just begun.

Content created by Assist. Sec./Public Affairs - Speechwriting Division
Content last reviewed on June 13, 2014