Good Bye, Mr. Butts

 
I’d smoked my mind the night before
With cigarettes and songs that I’d been pickin’
— Kris Kristofferson,
“Sunday Morning Coming Down”
(sung by various artists)

Fifty years ago on January 11, 1964, the Advisory Committee of the U. S. Surgeon General released its report on smoking and health. The committee had met from November 1962 to January 1964 and analyzed over 7,000 scientific articles and papers on the subject. The report’s conclusion was that tobacco smoking was definitely a causal factor in a number of diseases, chief among them were lung and larynx cancer, cardiovascular disease, and chronic bronchitis.

Before the report, many people knew or suspected that smoking tobacco was not good for you, and could cause health problems, but was not widely believed that it would kill you. Around 43% of Americans over 18 smoked in 1964. Smoking was glamorous, and the image of a smoker was that of a sophisticate. Tobacco manufacturers hired celebrities of all stripes, even sports stars, to advertise their products. Images were concocted to appeal to all. The Marlboro cowboy for those who fancied themselves as rugged he-men, or who aspired to be, Benson & Hedges were aimed at the yacht club set, Lucky Strikes had gone to war with the GIs in World War II, Salem was menthol refreshing, Kool was cool, and Winston simply tasted good (“like a cigarette should”). For the really pretentious, there were custom-made cigarettes. James Bond, who in the book Casino Royale smoked 70 in one day, had his (with the three gold rings) made by Moreland’s in Grosvenor Street (or some such place). Accessories like lighters and, particularly for women, designer cases to carry cigarettes were sold everywhere.

There was hardly any place one could not smoke, outside of petroleum refineries and explosive manufacturers. Ashtrays were ubiquitous; many even had designer labels. Smoking was allowed in restaurants, waiting rooms (even in doctors’ offices and hospitals), public buildings, courtrooms and college classrooms. A “smoke-filled room” was where political deals were made. Cigarette, but not pipe and cigar, smoking was permitted anywhere on airplanes; the airline even provided free four-packs with the meal that was included in the price of a ticket. The same four-packs were also included in military C-rations (the predecessor of today’s MREs), ostensibly as a show of support for the troops, but mainly as advertising by the manufacturers.

Mentioning taverns risks stating the obvious. Smoking and alcoholic beverages seemed to be natural companions. Visibility in some bar-rooms was near zero for the tobacco smog.

As early as 1951, there was concern in the medical science community that smoking could be carcinogenic. There was little doubt that heavy and long term users developed the chronic “smoker’s cough” and tobacco use diminished aerobic capacity. The tobacco industry discounted this and introduced filter cigarettes (and pipes with filters in the stem – “Dr. Grabow”) to answer the concerns. One brand advertised that there was “not a cough in a carload.” The industry was naturally concerned that labeling its product as poison could put them all out of business, and it sought to downplay the evidence.

President Kennedy, himself a cigar smoker (First Lady Jackie was a menthol cigarette chain smoker), had commissioned the cigarette smoking Surgeon General Luther Terry to form a committee to investigate the effect of smoking on health. Terry included tobacco industry representatives on the panel to protect its credibility. Of course, JFK did not live to see the report, but after 15 months the committee released its findings. They were devastating, and left little doubt that smoking contributed to many life-threatening diseases.

It wasn’t long afterward that the first warnings that cigarette smoking was hazardous to one’s health began to appear on cigarette packages, mandated by federal law. The warnings became stronger later on. Some publications, prominent among them Readers’ Digest, began a campaign with stories about the fate of those who smoked, why smokers should stop, and how to quit. Hardly a month went by without a horror story about some victim of a disease presumably caused by smoking. One that sticks in my mind was one with graphic descriptions of a throat cancer victim who had his larynx removed, and in his words had “become a freak” who could no longer breathe or talk normally. There is a photograph that appeared in magazines recently of a woman who died at age 50 after a decade of treating oral cancer that cost her larynx, teeth, and part of her jaw. Plastic surgery mitigated the damage to her face somewhat and a scarf discretely covered the permanent tracheotomy in her throat. The point was still graphically made.

The reaction among the majority of smokers appears to have been denial, at least at first. After all, smoking was still cool; that is, sophisticated and in with the in-crowd. Some bravado was evident. I recall an item in my college newspaper on the Surgeon General’s report that asked a number of students whether they intended to quit smoking as a result. One fraternity member, mentioned by name and described as tall and blond, replied “hell, no.” Wonder if he ever did?

It took several decades, but, inexorably, attitudes changed. As more and more evidence of the deleterious effects of smoking came forth, many quit, or didn’t start to begin with. Congress banned cigarette advertising from radio and television as of January 2, 1971 (giving the tobacco companies one last crack at the TV bowl game audiences). During the 1980s, many public accommodations, such as restaurants and airlines, began to segregate smokers from non-smokers, and businesses began to designate smoking areas for employees.

Most importantly, smoking lost its panache – its cool. By the 1990s, the image of smokers was no longer that of movie stars and professional ballplayers, but that of construction workers and rock band members whose only gigs were in local dives. Also, having to leave one’s workplace to go outside to smoke tended to brand smokers as pariahs. As fewer people smoked, non-smokers felt less compelled to accommodate those that did. The price of cigarettes, upon which higher and higher taxes were levied by federal and state governments, skyrocketed. Since tobacco remained a legal, though disfavored product, the cost increase was not so high so as to create a criminal market. A pack of cigarettes in 1964 cost a quarter from a vending machine (which were all over the place) and $2.00 for a carton of 10 packs in the store. In military exchanges there were considerable cheaper, as there was no tax. That last time I bothered to look, they were selling at around $3.00 per pack in the store. The high price probably does not much deter smokers, but it must have some effect.

According to some figures published in various places this week, approximately 18% of the population still smokes tobacco. There is probably no way to tell how much smaller that percentage will become in the future. My guess is that it will never be much less than 10%, but that is a gut feeling that based upon the perception that it is about the percentage of population that is pathological anyway.

This month is witnessing the legalization (or decriminalization) for recreational use of marijuana, another substance that is smoked for psycho-physical effect, in two states. More states are to follow this year and, probably, even more will in the next decade of so. Possession and use, as well as manufacture, transportation, and sale remains illegal under federal law, but the U.S. Justice Department has said, wisely, that so long as state law in that regard is followed, it will not enforce the federal statutes.

There have been numerous writings and broadcast opinions speculating that legalization of marijuana will doom us. Children will now be able to smoke pot. Driving while stoned will cause more road and highway deaths. Many other horrible things will happen as a result of legal pot.

I say, relax. Around 20 years ago, articles in American Heritage magazine looked to history before there were any laws prohibiting the possession and use of what we now called controlled substances. We had a problem in this country. Around 10% of the population used opiates, cocaine, and cannabis to some extent; some abused these substances. A somewhat higher percentage abused alcohol. Today, after a 40 year full scale “war on drugs” we have the same percentage who abuse those substances (along with ones that have similar effects). Many people drink alcoholic beverages; a small percentage abuse them. If we want to keep marijuana use under control, we must make it un-cool to use it, like we have done with tobacco.

But that’s another story.

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