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The benefits of prudence

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In September 1958, a future columnist, then 17, was unpacking as a college freshman when upperclassmen hired by tobacco companies knocked on his dormitory door, distributing free mini-packs of cigarettes. He and many other aspiring sophisticates became smokers. Six years later — 40 years ago: Jan. 11, 1964 — when the Surgeon General published the report declaring tobacco carcinogenic, more than 40 percent of American adults smoked. Today, when smoking is considered declassee rather than sophisticated, fewer than one-fifth do.

In June 1971, a New York couple decided their Bon Vivant brand vichyssoise tasted strange so they put aside their bowls, too late. Within hours he was dead and she was paralyzed from botulism poisoning. And within a month Bon Vivant was bankrupt, proof of the power of health-related information to change Americans’ behavior.

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