The Smoldering Fire
The slow-burning history of the anti-smoking crusade
By Michael Sims
OCTOBER 13, 1997:
Tobacco is a filthy weed,
"STATES DECLARE WAR ON CIGARET," the Chicago Tribune headline announced, "Nearly Every Legislature Considering Best Measures for Restriction." The Tribune called the anti-smoking movement a crusade and pointed out that only two states lacked anti-smoking legislation. The other 43 states were marching ahead to rid the country of tobacco.
If the math doesn't seem to add up, it's because, when the Tribune headline was published, the U.S. comprised only 45 states. The news story didn't appear last week. It appeared in 1901. One of the myths about the modern anti-smoking movement is that it is a new crusade. In reality, smoking and opposition to it share a long and colorful history.
In October 1492, three boatloads of Eurotrash looking for India bumped into a whole new world. A couple of weeks later, Cristóbal Colón, whom English speakers remember as Christopher Columbus, wrote in his journal that, while exploring, two of his men met native "women and men, with a firebrand in the hand, and herbs to drink the smoke thereof, as they are accustomed."
By the time the Europeans arrived, tobacco had been established throughout the Americas for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Archaeologists have found widespread evidence of the popularity of smoking. But thanks both to the character of Native American record-keeping and to the plunder of the invaders, most of our information about tobacco use dates from after the arrival of Columbus.
The European explorers may have mocked the yokels' customs, but they brought tobacco home with them, with predictable results. There is a perennially repeated story--too good to be true--that a servant who saw Sir Walter Raleigh smoking for the first time did what any faithful attendant would do when finding his employer on fire. He flung a pitcher of water on him.
Smoking has been common for so long we forget that, once upon a time, it was a revolutionary concept. When other luxury items, such as chocolate and tea, arrived in Europe, they were novelties, but they were consumed in the same manner as other food and drink. When smoking came along, not only was the product new but there was not even a name for what one did with it. At first people referred to "drinking tobacco" or "drinking smoke." One satire against it was entitled Dry Drunkenness.
As the tone of that title indicates, opposition to the new pastime began early. By the 1570s, one historian was already denouncing tobacco as "a foul and pestiferous poison of the Devil." In the early 1600s, King James took time out from reading his new Bible to condemn smoking as "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."
Other monarchs opposed tobacco--Peter the Great, Louis XIV. In Russia smokers were beaten. In India their nostrils were slit. But the award for most effective smoking cure may go to Turkey, where offenders were deprived of their offending heads. Although beheading didn't leave the nation completely smoke-free, in individual cases it worked quite well.
The famously brutal Murad the Cruel, a 17th-century Ottoman sultan, was so anti-smoking that he played undercover cop. Some stories claim that he disguised himself and entrapped Istanbul merchants. If they succumbed to greed and sold him tobacco, Murad either had them killed, or he whipped out his scimitar on the spot and beheaded them, leaving the corpses as proof that smoking can be hazardous to your health.
In the United States, opposition to tobacco hasn't been quite so dramatic, but it has always been around. The tone of the early debate is expressed in the 1798 pamphlet "Observations upon the influence of the Habitual use of Tobacco upon Health, Morals, and Property." Later, opinion makers such as Horace Greeley joined the fight. He defined a particular cigar as "a fire at one end and a fool at the other." Tobacco's most dangerous incarnation, the cigarette, came along in the mid-19th century. In 1854 a doctor in New York complained that "some of the ladies of this refined and fashion-forming metropolis are aping the silly ways of some pseudo-accomplished foreigners, in smoking Tobacco through a weaker and more feminine article, which has been most delicately denominated cigarette."
Obviously, even smokers did not immediately embrace the newcomer. Detractors claimed that cigarettes were made from cigar butts found on the street, or that workers urinated on the tobacco to give it that certain je ne sais quoi. The suspect paper wrapper itself was said to be soaked in opium.
Yet cigarettes caught on. With the invention of a practical cigarette-rolling machine in 1885, tobacco achieved its greatest popularity ever--and the modern American anti-smoking campaign was born. "Society is becoming more and more neurotic," a surgeon announced in 1889, "and this is due to alcohol and tobacco." That same year a cartoon personified cigarettes as a skeleton greeted by devils, with the caption, "The Presiding Deities of Alcohol and Opium Welcoming Their New Ally, the Demon of the Cigarette."
In response to the marketing assault, parents and health advocates united to fight back. An 1888 editorial stated flatly, "There is no question that demands more public attention than the prevailing methods of cigarette manufacturers to foster and stimulate smoking among children."
Reaction to those methods reached hysteria. In 1890 The New York Times described the death of an 8-year-old boy from "excessive smoking," in a tone that sounds like Reefer Madness: "He would stay away from home several days at a time, eating nothing but the herbs and berries of the neighborhood and smoking constantly. Sunday he became ill and delirious. He died Tuesday in frightful convulsions."
Anti-smoking advocates attributed many ills to cigarettes. Those children who escaped immediate death could look forward to color blindness, baldness, sterility, drunkenness, insanity, and constipation. Boys might become either promiscuous or impotent. Girls would grow mustaches.
A school commissioner described the smoky road to hell: "The `cigarette fiend' in time becomes a liar and a thief. He will commit petty thefts to get money to feed his insatiable appetite for nicotine. He lies to his parents, his teachers, and his best friends. He neglects his studies and, narcotized by nicotine, sits at his desk half stupefied, his desire for work, his ambition, dulled if not dead."
"Something heroic must be done for the suppression of this monstrous evil," one newspaper declared, so passionate that it went on to forget its grammar, "or the coming American man will be a pigmy and a disgrace to their race. Let our legislature come to their rescue."
Many elected officials held out a placating hand to the voters and an open hand to the tobacco lobby. An industry insider described the routine: "A bill would be introduced to a legislature to prohibit the manufacture or sale of cigarettes; it would be referred to a committee and our people would have to get busy and pay somebody to see that it died." Whenever a law actually passed, vendors usually discovered that enforcement was halfhearted.
Then, in the 1890s, a woman named Lucy Page Gaston spearheaded the anti-smoking campaign of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Deputized, she appeared in court more than 600 times in 10 years. Gaston harangued audiences, distributed tracts, and led boys and girls in the Clean Life Pledge: "I hereby pledge myself with the help of God to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage and from the use of tobacco in any form."
Most states banned the sale of tobacco to minors by the turn of the century. Nebraska and Wisconsin banned cigarette sales entirely in 1905, and Indiana outlawed even the possession of tobacco. Over the next few years several other states joined them.
And yet smokers, including tens of thousands of children, continued to puff away. In 1907, a magazine described some case histories of young addicts. Case No. 1 was typical: "Began habit at 4, taught by boys 6 and 7.
Almost physical wreck now at 13. Sight poor, voice like a ghost, hearing impaired. Steals. In first grade."
The nationwide campaign kept going. Businessmen from Henry Ford to Thomas Edison revealed that cigarette smoking alone might prevent an applicant from being offered a job. Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, said flatly, "No boy or man can expect to succeed in this world to a high position and continue the use of cigarettes."
All along, the anti-smoking activists were fighting the right enemy with the wrong weapons. Inevitably, they undermined their own credibility with outrageous "case histories" and unsubstantiated statistics. Many physicians, still unconvinced of nicotine's dangers, hastened to distance themselves from activists they considered fanatics. Others pocketed tobacco money and pronounced cigarettes harmless, if not absolutely medicinal. Another factor was that cigarette smoke is inhaled in ways that cigar and pipe smoke are not, resulting in quick and easy addiction. Also, in the era of the telephone, the elevator, and the motor-car, cigarettes suited the defining characteristic of the times--acceleration. They were cheap and effortless. In the city, they seemed the best way to use tobacco, while, in the country, they were losing their damning city-slicker image. Soon, in fact, movies would be presenting cigarettes as the indispensable accessory of the true sophisticate.
Soon states began to repeal their laws against the sale and consumption of cigarettes. Indiana was first, in 1909, with other states following over the next few years. The few remaining anti-cigarette statutes were mostly ignored. The anti-smoking movement was losing momentum.
World War I was good for tobacco companies. The cigarette manufacturers couldn't have bought such wonderful publicity. Medics harped on the importance of cigarettes as anesthetics. One surgeon reported, "As soon as the lads take their first `whiff' they seem eased and relieved of their agony." General Pershing sent a famous cable to Washington: "Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration; we must have thousands of tons of it without delay."
No patriotic American could ignore such a plea. A National Cigarette Service Committee was formed, as was an Army Girl's Transport Tobacco Fund. Anti-smoking activists were scandalized to find even the YMCA sending cigarettes across the Atlantic. Soon cigarettes were provided by the military itself.
Then came Prohibition. The triumph over demon rum briefly re-energized the opponents of smoking. "Prohibition is won," evangelist Billy Sunday declared; "now for tobacco."
The anti-smoking groups targeted a new enemy. To the dismay of old-timers, women were openly smoking. Soon members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union could be seen standing on street corners holding a sign. It had no words, only a picture of a mother holding a baby in her arms and a cigarette in her mouth. This was the era that Virginia Slims cigarettes would later satirize. Its slogan, "You've come a long way, Baby," would contrast the secretive lives of early female smokers with the new equal opportunities for lung cancer. Finally, the immoral women got so out of hand that the law was brought to bear on them--usually with little success, because the times were changing. In 1908 New York City passed an ordinance, the Sullivan Act, forbidding women to smoke in public. The very next day, a woman named Katie Mulcahey was arrested after striking a match against the wall of a house and lighting a cigarette.
The standard story claims that the officer protested, "Madame, you mustn't! What would Alderman Sullivan say?"
"But I am," Mulcahey replied calmly, "and I don't know."
In night court she stated her views to the judge, who was, of course, a man: "I've got as much right to smoke as you have. I never heard of this new law, and I don't want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me."
The Sullivan Act lasted only two weeks before being vetoed by the mayor.
Opposition to women smoking wasn't confined to the U.S., of course. The last gasp of that era's attitude survives in Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's prewar opera, Il Segreto di Susanna ("Susanna's Secret"). Her secret is that she smokes. Susanna's husband, Gil, doesn't smoke, but he keeps smelling cigarettes around the house. It doesn't occur to him that his wife is smoking; he assumes she has a lover. Finally, Gil walks in on Susanna while she's indulging in her private vice. When he reaches behind her to see what she's hiding, he burns himself and realizes that her secret is not another man. They light up together and join in a dance.
It was an increasingly popular sentiment. By the 1920s, women were wearing short skirts and silk stockings, and they were engaging in two new sports--illicit drinking and experimenting in that mobile biology laboratory, the automobile. And, like the men and boys before them, right out in public in front of God and Calvin Coolidge, they were smoking.
For a while that seemed to be the end of the anti-smoking movement. Tobacco had lost some skirmishes, yet it had still won the battle. But the war wasn't over. Over the next few decades, undeniable medical evidence of the hazards of tobacco would culminate in the new restrictions and legislation we see in the news every day. But the first fight, the early, seemingly absurd campaigns, would be largely forgotten.
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