NYT Obit Fails to Out Jennings as Smoker

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Maybe the obituary writer at the New York Times should be the one in jail instead of Judith Miller. The Times report on Peter Jennings' life and death, published on August 8th, and followed the next day by a long business story about Jennings' legacy at ABC News, somehow failed to mention two key words: "cigarettes" and "smoking." This, despite his on-air acknowledgment last April that his terminal lung cancer was caused by his addiction to cigarettes.

It is true, and regretful, that Mr. Jennings did not reach out to his millions of viewers and admirers to hammer home the point that smoking is the worst choice a young person can make. He could have, during his final months, recorded an anti-smoking message or two, warning Americans that by the time a smoker reaches full maturity, the strength of the addiction makes it nearly too powerful to kick, at least without major investments of time, energy, and willpower. Others in his sad state have done so, perhaps saving lives while theirs were ending: I recall William Talman of TV's Perry Mason show and Yul Brynner, unforgettable portrayer of the King of Siam in The King and I, making TV ads urging folks to think about them before deciding to smoke.

Nevertheless, when writing about someone whose life ended so prematurely (at 67, Jennings had every reason to expect fifteen to twenty more years) and someone whose condition had already been publicized -- whose story could be a source of cautionary insight to hundreds of thousands of people deciding whether to begin smoking -- it seems strange, indeed bizarre, not to mention smoking, which is the main cause (by far) of premature preventable death in the U.S. and throughout the developed world.

The obit writer did quote Jennings at one point as saying: "I had the good sense to quit." But that was about his decision, in 1968, to be relieved of his anchor duties at ABC, a position for which he was not yet, at age 29, qualified. Imagine if he had been able to quit smoking many years ago and stayed free of cigarettes thereafter. Four months ago, he admitted on the air that, while he had quit at some point, the "stresses of 9/11" caused him to resume the habit. Which cigarettes were decisive in the causation of his cancer? No one will ever know; indeed, in recent years over 55% of lung cancers are discovered in former smokers, and a small number (about 12% of the 173,000 or so annual diagnoses) are in never-smokers. It is certain, however, that his likelihood of remaining free of lung cancer -- as well as the many other illness that disable and kill smokers --would have been far greater had he remained cigarette-free after his initial "clean" period.

One man holds a vigil, another a cigarette, outside ABC the week of Jennings' death.

So, in the absence of the late newsman, and in the inexcusable omission of the Times obit writer, it is left to us in public health education to drive the point home to as many as we can reach:

--There is a very good way to avoid the number one cancer killer, lung cancer: don't smoke.

--There is a very easy way to avoid the travails of trying to quit: don't even start.

--If you already smoke, the sooner you quit the more your risk decreases -- although it never returns to the level of someone who never smoked.

--Ladies: lung cancer kills far more women than breast cancer.

--Gentlemen: lung cancer kills more than three times as many men as prostate cancer.

Each and every day, 450 Americans die of lung cancer. Peter Jennings was just one more among this ghastly and preventable toll. Let's hope that the publicity surrounding his loss will at least help others trying to avoid his fate.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).