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George Harrison Remembered, Ten Years On

The much-missed Beatle was perfectly honest about the addiction that killed him: smoking.

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George Harrison: All Those Years Ago
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By Walter Armstrong

11/29/11

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George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle” known as the soul of the band, died 10 years ago today, aged 58. Among the tributes to his brilliant career, it’s worth noting that while the cause of his death is generally reported as cancer, what really killed the Beatles’ lead guitarist—as he freely admitted—was nicotine addiction. He smoked an average of three packs a day for three decades, starting when he was in his teens.

"I got it purely from smoking,” he said when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997. “I gave up cigarettes many years ago, but had started again for a while and then stopped this year.” In 2001 he had surgery for lung cancer, but within months the tumors had metastasized in his brain. Told he might only have weeks to live, he desperately underwent a controversial—and very costly—experimental treatment to bombard the brain tumor with radiation. (The doctor involved, Gilbert Lederman, spent the next ten years promoting himself as “George Harrison’s doctor” and was eventually found guilty of malpractice in a sweeping lawsuit covering 20 wrongful death claims.) Harrison died a few months later. 

In the decade since Harrison’s death, tobacco control and bans have cut US rates of cigarette smoking and lung cancer—but only by 2 or 3 percent, according to the CDC. Not surprisingly, the incidence of the disease mirrors rates of smoking state-by-state—which in turn closely shadow anti-smoking regs. Since the recession, however, funding to implement these laws has fallen to near zero in many states. The biggest change may be measured less in terms of public health than public attitudes. When George Harrison was dying of lung cancer, it was his smoking "habit” that was blamed. Now we understand smoking as an addiction—and nicotine as the hardest substance of all to quit.

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