Tobacco’s road from fashion to filth


NEW YORK — If a recent article in the Science section of The New York Times is any indication, the idea that the history of the tobacco industry in the United States has been nothing less than perfidy has taken hold among the socially conscientious. Titled “Tracing the Cigarette’s Path From Sexy to Deadly,” the article, by Howard Markel, M.D., recounts how cigarette makers kept insisting that smoking is no “health risk” for fully 30 years after the surgeon general, the top U.S. health officer, declared it was, in 1964.

What caught my eye, though, was not the changing ethos the title of the article blared so much as the two old cigarette ads reproduced to accompany it. The main ad comes with a photo of three people in what appears to be a doctor’s well-appointed office: to the right, a genial, smiling, middle-age white-clad man of the kind that the word “doctor” might have conjured up once upon a time; at center, a girl to whom he is listening; and behind her, to the left, a young, smiling, well-dressed woman with a hat — evidently the girl’s mother.

The caption above the picture indicates what the girl is saying to the good doctor: “I’m going to grow a hundred years old!” It is followed by a notation in italics: “. . . and possibly she may — for the amazing strides of medical science have added years to life expectancy.” So is the ad about scientific progress? No, the caption below the picture says: “According to a recent Nationwide survey (in italics) More Doctors smoke Camels (in bold face) than any other cigarette! (in italics).”

The doctor in this ad, which is from the 1940s, is not smoking, but the two figures in the other ad are: a young woman in an evening dress reclining on what appears to be a sumptuous couch and a young man in a dark dress suit seated this side of her, back turned to the viewer. The copy at the top reads: “Do You Inhale?” (all caps), and that at the bottom: “Everybody’s doing it!” The latter is followed by a note suggestive of another survey result: “7 out of 10 smokers inhale knowingly — the other 3 inhale unknowingly.” A scene from “The Great Gatsby” perhaps, the alluring painting is an ad for Lucky Strike and from 1932.

As it happens, I had just bought three old issues of Life magazine, all having to do with Yukio Mishima (1925-70) one way or another, and had noticed that the back page of each was devoted to a cigarette ad. So, in the Sept. 11, 1964, issue, which was a Japan special because the Tokyo Olympics was coming up, even as the front page shows a gorgeously kimono-clad young beauty bowling, the back page presents a couple neatly dressed for tennis, a smiling woman lighting the cigarette stuck in a smiling man’s mouth. The copy reads: “Viceroy’s got the Deep-Weave Filter for the taste that’s right!”

The back cover of the Sept. 2, 1966, issue shows a handsome, young businessman who has just stuck his arm out of a window of a bus and revised, with a paint brush, the ad on this side of the bus to read “Winston tastes good like YOUR cigarette should!” The original had “a” in place of “your.” Three respectably dressed middle-aged people in the bus look on approvingly, even though they can’t possibly see what the young man has done.

This issue of Life, incidentally, is known, among those interested in such matters, for the essay in which John Nathan pointedly judged Mishima’s writerly ability to be in decline, even though the large spread for the writer was designed to showcase “Japan’s Dynamo of Letters.” Nathan’s decision to downgrade the “genius who (was) building a legend” resulted from his changed literary allegiance, but no matter: In two of the eight photos accompanying the “closeup,” Mishima is shown smoking. His favored brand was Peace.

The Dec. 11, 1970, issue, which carried the news on “The Samurai Who Committed Hara-kiri,” complete with a photo of his head on the floor, tells us how quickly environmentalism was catching on. The front cover shows a blonde carrying on her back a bag overflowing with vegetables fresh from the garden, with the caption: “Organic Food: New and Natural,” with a note, “Model Gunilla Knutson owns a health food store.” The back cover is equally nature-oriented. It is a photo of a forest with a stream, with the sun filtering down through the trees. Placed on the tree stump in the foreground is a pack of Kool, with the caption: “Come all the way up to Kool.”

So, yes, Howard Markel, M.D., is right: “In contrast to the symbol of death and disease it is today, from the early 1900s to the 1960s the cigarette was a cultural icon of sophistication, glamour and sexual allure.”

That said, I must say I’m disquieted by the all-out condemnation of the tobacco industry and smoking. No, I don’t smoke. Decades ago, when a college English major, I tried pipe-smoking. Perhaps I wanted to look like a scholar of European literature of some bygone days. Alas, I soon found that smoking did not agree with me.

But I drink. So, when I see smoking insistently condemned, I see the specter of Prohibition (1920-1933) rise. I see zealotry, righteousness, bigotry. Yes, I know drinking is somewhat different than smoking. When you are sober, you can be nauseated by the proximity of someone
reeking of alcohol, but there is as yet no talk of “secondhand or passive drinking.”

Yet, if Prohibition led to an expansion of the mob and corruption, the anti-smoking crusade has created an expansion of lawyering and narcissism. Egged on by lawyers, smokers have sued tobacco manufacturers claiming false advertisement. But they knew all along that cigarettes were called “coffin nails,” did they not? Blaming someone else for the ills you have created for yourself is one temptation most of us find hard to resist, but succumbing to it in this instance is too blatant, is it not?

One question is: What next? As far as hazardousness to your health goes, the next target may well be the food industry. On top of all the talk about obesity as a national health crisis in the U.S., the only way to stay healthy nowadays appears to be not to eat anything at all, if you are to believe what all those “recent studies” tell you.